Performances resurrect philandering English king

Danielle Norris

Before this, I thought family reunions could get a little heated.

Turns out my family’s got nothing on Henry XI, king of England, his estranged and imprisoned wife Eleanor and their three sons, John, Geoffrey and Richard, better known as Richard the Lion Heart.

The whole twisted story is told in James Goldman`s “The Lion in Winter,” the story of one Christmas in the late years of King Henry XI, as he tries to decide which of his sons will receive the throne.

 

Adding to the king’s troubles are the political agenda of French King Philip and his sister Alais, who is also Henry’s mistress and future wife of one of his sons.

If that all sounds sort of confusing, you haven’t heard the half of it.

The whole play is a two and a half hour long extravaganza of backstabbing, plotting, bickering, fighting, declarations of love and hate… and a bit of wine here and there.

And I loved every second of it.

While it might read in the description as a “stuffy historical drama” it is anything but, with endless snappy dialogue, fast-paced, constant plot twists and excellent performances by the entire cast.

Richard Marlatt and Licia Watson, who play Henry and Eleanor, respectively, ground the play with commanding performances, both funny and intense.

The two play a couple who hate each other but also feel a strange form of love, or at least a deep connection.

Marlatt and Watson are both veteran members of the Actors Equity Association, and their experience shows, making both characters tired by their troubled lives, but still so very much alive.

Other characters include Alais, Henry’s young mistress, played by Bridgette Hoover, who makes the character both sympathetic and realistic.

While she does not scheme as much as the other characters, she is certainly not stupid.

Also not void of intelligence is King Philip, played by Kyle Rupert, who Henry terribly underestimates.

His performance manages to go from quiet and observant to fierce and angry and back in a second, leaving everyone confused about where he actually stands.

Then there are the three sons.

Kevin Bickwermert plays Richard with a stoic hardness that every once in a while comes down, especially striking when next to Paul Mindrup, who’s John is a young spoiled pawn in his family’s games and does the difficult task of making him winey without ever annoying the audience more than he annoys the character.

And then there’s middle son Geoffrey, who Kaleb Sullivan plays with sly intelligence, who seems to change loyalties like other people change socks.

I can’t say enough about the performances: alternately funny and fascinating, and somehow very real.

The lights and score set a moody, closed-in atmosphere, and the costumes add just enough historical touch without going overboard.

The direction by Elliot Wasserman is, as always, fantastic.

This is one half of USI theaters repertory Project, along with the raucous comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and I highly recommend both.

Because it’s nice to know that, as dysfunctional as your family gets around the holidays, it could be a lot worse.