by Beki Pineda

THE LION IN WINTER – Written by James Goldman; Directed by Kristy E. Pike. Produced by The Upstart Crow (presented at the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut) through August 26. Tickets available at 303-578-5667 or theupstartcrow.org.
James Goldman wrote THE LION IN WINTER in 1966 almost as though he were writing an episode of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER in which Wally, Eddie (Wally’s ingratiating friend) and the Beav bicker over who was going to inherit the bungalow when Ward bit the dust. Humorous, colloquial, more hilarity than history, more comedy than crowns, this version of this moment in history works for a modern audience because of this  it humanizes the characters and allows us to laugh at their (to them) life or death (to us) foibles. Goldman who often wrote about famous couples in history (Nicholas and Alexandra, Robin and Marian) explained that he liked to imagine their personal life, what was under their public life and their real motivations.
This volatile couple provided plenty of fodder for an examination of motives. Henry was born the grandson of an English king and the son of a strong royal woman, Matilda whose entitlements were taken from her by virtue of her gender and given to a nephew of her father upon his death. Her arranged marriage was supposed to unite and strengthen the bonds between England and France, but instead because of this royal snub, only created more turmoil. The young Henry grew up engrossed in his mother’s attempts to regain her rightful place in the English monarchy and observing the political machinations of these skirmishes. As a result he never learned to trust anyone and doubted professed loyalty.
His match for a royal wife was found in Eleanor of Aquitaine whose marriage to King Phillip of France was annulled because she only produced two daughters and no sons from that union. But obviously, a relationship with Henry had begun before the annulment as they were married only eight weeks later. They appear to  have had a happy and productive marriage for the first fifteen years and an abiding respect for each other for the remainder of their lives. But Henry’s inability to trust and his penchant for keeping secrets even from his four sons regarding his succession led to uneasy and ever-changing alliances. By the time, we enter the picture of THE LION IN WINTER, one son, Henry the Younger, has already led two unsuccessful rebellions against his father and died as a result of dysentery from the battlefield.
While it enhances the enjoyment of this production to know a little of the background leading into the present moment in the story, the play stands on its own as a family drama. In spite of the family conference convened to settle the matter of succession once and for all, it remains to be continued at the next Christmas gathering. The remaining three sons squabble among themselves while Henry (Tom Mann) seems to stand aside and judge who is the stronger. Richard (Archie Archuleta), the oldest, would seem to be the natural heir; he has formed a special bond with King Phillip (Roark Thornberry) of France, also visiting and seems to have the temperament for leadership. Geoffrey (Jeremy Barnes), the middle son, appears to waffle back and forth in his support for his brothers while secretly developing his own plot for rising from his position of no power as the middle brother. John (Rubin Hochhauser), the youngest, behaves like a spoiled pampered brat and loses any advantage he might have claimed as his father’s favorite by his behavior. All in all, an exciting family dynamic to see performed on stage.  As Eleanor remarks after a particularly cruel exchange, all families have their ups and downs.
This particular evening belongs to Katherine Dubois Reed playing Eleanor with an ease and grace born from many years on stage and a natural stage presence. She brings a subtle humor and loving nature to Eleanor even in the face of strife. You are left wondering about her true feelings about Henry and how much has he really hurt her by his actions past and present. She is supported ably by a quiet understated performance by Joanne Niederhoff as Alais, Henry’s current paramour and a former ward of Eleanor’s court.
The costumes for this production, designed by Marcia Crary and Eugenia Klagstad, are beautifully elegant and authentic. The set, while proving to be a little unwieldy and difficult to get into place during the scene changes, was elegant once it got there.
A short run, this version of LION IN WINTER ends on Sunday.
A WOW factor of 8!