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The Lion in Winter
THEATER REVIEW
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2011-08-24

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Playwright: James Goldman. At: Idle Muse Theatre at the Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave. Phone: 800-838-3006;$15-$20. Runs through: Sept. 11

Depending on whom you ask, James Goldman's 1966 play is: a) an anachronism-riddled historical romp, b) a satire of upper-class snoots bickering like horse-traders, c) a star-vehicle for two aged hams and assorted young hamlets or d) all of the above. What's certain is that the concept of the royal family representing "the world in small" was never more labored than in this intimate look at the household of England's Henry II and France's Eleanor of Aquitaine, and that its frequent revivals, even today, still rely heavily on the mannered performances of Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn in the 1968 film.

Fortunately, Idle Muse Theatre's mission mandates fresh approaches to repertoire grown mossy with age and popularity. Under Evan Jackson's direction, a narrative too-often orchestrated as a virtual two-hander has been reconfigured to reflect the ensemble ethos unique to Chicago's storefront circuit. Oh, mommy and daddy Plantagenet still dominate the action, but no longer are the other players in the game reduced to near-identical brats to be shoved around by scheming relatives. In this production, all three sons—petulant John, gay Richard and brooding Geoffrey—are endowed with personalities as boldly-etched as that of their sire, closely followed by that of their chief adversary, the teenage King Philip of France.

The women aren't as lucky. Scholars agree that Eleanor was an extraordinary women for her time (or any other, for that matter) making it only appropriate that Goldman reserve his choicest zingers for her, even if it leaves poor princess Alais—whose marriage to an English prince is to seal the treaty between the countries (and guarantee Henry his mistress sleeping nearby)—with nothing to do but feebly protest her status. It's to Jackson's credit that he contrives to allow Alex Fisher a few moments to demonstrate her character's alacrity at learning from her elders.

Indeed, the entire cast takes welcome advantage of their close quarters in the Side Project to render us privy to their personae's subtextual machinations—not through the actorly twitches usually associated with costume drama, but integrated into the power struggles with a vigor and immediacy exemplified by the visual metaphor of David Skvarla's ursine Henry surrounded by would-be usurpers like a bear baited by dogs. Save your NetFlix for the upcoming snowbound evenings and indulge yourself in these late-summer days to the pleasures of a familiar classic made new.


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