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THEATER REVIEW: “The Lion In Winter” is royally funny

Family squabbles on a royal scale are played for laughs in James Goldman’s “The Lion In Winter,” at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista through Sept. 15.

Director O.P. Hadlock treats this witty examination of power, love and meaning in the 12th-century court of England’s King Henry II as the comedy Goldman says it is, giving us an utterly engaging collection of characters gathered for the Christmas festivities of 1183 at Henry’s castle at Chinon. The characters are real but the situation – including a gay angle that goes nowhere – is straight out of Goldman’s imagination.

Henry (Steve Murdock), claiming that “power is the only fact,” maintains that he has managed to be “a king, alive and 50 all at once” by means of plotting and manipulating others (including his three sons).

His efforts to acquire real estate have certainly been successful. He got the Aquitaine – the richest province in France – by way of his marriage to Eleanor (Sandy Hotchkiss Gullans), the former French queen, and acquired another French province – the Vexin – by promising son Richard (Chris Fonseca) in marriage to the French king’s daughter Alais (Devon Hollingsworth).

There’s just one fly in that ointment: Alais, who has grown up in Henry’s household and become quite a tasty morsel herself, has been Henry’s mistress for several years.

Now, as death nears, Henry wants his succession settled in favor of youngest son John (Morgan Hollingsworth), a petulant, pimply-faced adolescent seemingly devoid of brains.

The Queen is equally determined that eldest son Richard inherit the crown. But Henry has kept his queen in the royal prison for the past decade for a previous insurrection against the king. Neither parent considers middle son Geoffrey (James Steinberg), probably the brightest bulb in this family constellation. (His father’s opinion: “He isn’t flesh; he’s a device; he’s wheels and gears.”)

As if this weren’t enough, Philip (Osmond Arnesto), the 17-year-old king of France, has arrived, demanding either his sister’s marriage or the Vexin back.

Richard wants the power, John wants the status. Geoffrey – suffering from the middle-child curse – just wants to be recognized. Realizing the crown will never be his, Geoffrey spends his time plotting to become the power behind the throne.

The use of standard English rather than a French accent makes these characters more accessible; they could almost be a cleverer, richer version of the people next door.

Gullan’s Eleanor is the find here – solid as a rock, she shows the inner strength to endure not only Henry’s annoying dalliance with Alais, but her own 10-year imprisonment with grace and humor. But it’s apparent that she’s capable of turning that knife, given a chance.

Despite Murdock’s rather puzzling growly delivery, his Henry is excellent and he’s a great foil for the Queen. Their scenes sparkle with wit and humor.

Fonseca’s Richard is properly bellicose, even with little brother John, the only obstacle between him and the crown. Hollingworth is perfect as the blank-slate adolescent John, giving viewers food for thought about how and to whom power is (and should be) passed.

Steinberg’s Geoffrey has a little trouble overcoming the great mop of a wig that makes him look more like a medieval rock star than a hungry plotter. Arnesto is fine as Philip II, but could be a bit more foppish – he is, after all, part of the gay subplot.

Only Devon Hollingsworth isn’t quite up to the collective acting level, but she is pretty and moves nicely.

There’s little chance the Angevin royalty was anywhere near as clever as depicted here, but Goldman gives us one of the more fascinating evenings with this royal dysfunctional family.

The details

“The Lion In Winter” plays through Sept. 15 at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Ave. (near F Street), Chula Vista.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets, call 619-422-7787 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.