A battle of royals, sumptuously mounted and supremely acted in 'The Lion in Winter'
If the law of primogeniture were in effect in England in 1183, there would have been a clear order of royal succession. Not only would history be drastically altered, but there would be no basis for James Goldman to write "The Lion in Winter," the fictional battle of words and wits among the Plantagenets. In it, King Henry II is 50, an age where he is "the oldest man I know," and understandably concerned about his legacy and the future of his realm... The queen, the politically powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine, locked away by Henry for a decade, has been let out for a Christmas reunion with the family at Chinon castle... Such a reunion is a fabrication by Goldman, but a dramatically potent one, powered by hyper-articulate dialogue, back-stabbing schemes and alliances of convenience, quickly forged and just as quickly dissolved. The action is like a chess game, played by a king, a queen and their three conniving knights. Also on the board is an opposing king, young Philip of France, and his sister Alais, who is Henry's mistress and a mere pawn in the cutthroat machinations. Although events are Shakespearean in their consequences, Goldman consciously writes with contemporary language, modern attitudes and the occasional sore thumb anachronism. In Henry and Eleanor, he created two towering characters and, at Palm Beach Dramaworks, director William Hayes has a couple of fine classically trained actors to do them justice. C. David Johnson's Henry is full of bluster, but the actor lets us see that it is merely a negotiation tactic. The Eleanor of Tod Randolph is softer, but she frequently shows us the steeliness beneath. As necessary, the two performers are well matched and, when alone onstage together, they project an abiding love for each other, with flickers of tenderness woven between their bouts of verbal brutality. As described, Cliff Burgess' Geoffrey is "all cogs and wheels," ever conniving. Chris Crawford (Richard) is pure macho, until he is outmaneuvered by Philip at the end of the first act in a scene rich with tapestries and treachery. As John, Justin Baldwin does not have to be much more than dense and out of his depth, which he manages well. The stakes are high in the family skirmishes of "The Lion in Winter," yet Goldman depicts them with humor and humanity. Leave it to Palm Beach Dramaworks to serve up a very involving 12th century Christmas tale of royalty behaving badly, in time for the holidays. The verdict: A verbal battle royal among the Plantagenets of 1183, featuring razor-sharp performances and a massive, mobile scenic design.