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

I don’t know whether the universe is as absurd as Samuel Beckett portrays it in “Waiting For Godot,” but Henry II’s 12th-century squabbles over succession as painted by playwright James Goldman come close to ludicrous.

North Coast Repertory Theatre celebrates its 30th anniversary with a fine production of “The Lion In Winter,” which was part of their first season. Andrew Barnicle, who formerly headed the theater at United States International University (and NCRT’s former associate artistic director), returns to direct.

Henry (Mark Pinter), who says he has managed to be “a king, alive and 50 all at once” by means of plotting and manipulating others (including his three sons), has spent a lot of energy plotting to add real estate to the kingdom.

He got the Aquitaine – the richest province in France – by way of his marriage to Eleanor, the former French queen, and acquired another French province, the Vexin, by promising son Richard (Richard Baird) in marriage to the French king’s daughter Alais (Alexandra Grossi).

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 (Kyle Roche), a petulant, pimply-faced adolescent seemingly devoid of brains. And Philip, the 17-year-old king of France, has arrived, demanding either his sister’s marriage or the Vexin back.

The Queen is equally determined that eldest son Richard inherit the crown. But Henry has kept his queen under house arrest for the past decade for a previous insurrection against the king. Neither parent considers middle son Geoffrey (Jason Maddy), 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.”)

“The Lion In Winter” takes place at Christmastime in 1183 in Henry’s castle at Chinon. Goldman has taken these historical characters and created a fictional – and comic – portrait of royal family dysfunction, telescoping both the succession issues and Henry’s dalliance with Alais into a two-hour sitcom that will leave no one dreaming of life as royalty. He even tosses in a gay angle that goes nowhere.

It’s difficult to imagine a better cast for this piece. The plot is convoluted, full of attempted backstabbings and mostly fruitless shifting alliances, but Goldman has a way with clever repartee and these actors know how to milk that for all it’s worth.

Pinter and Chappell are fine mutual foils, oozing intelligence and humor if not devotion, and Goldman has given this pair many of the best lines. One of my favorites: When Richard pulls a knife on brother John, he evidences surprise. Eleanor notes, “Of course he has a knife. We all have knives. It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians.”

Maddy’s Geoffrey shows an active intelligence and the scheming capability of his father. Roche is convincing and suitably annoying as the kid who may be king. Baird’s Richard, the warrior of the trio, is given little to do besides glower and say unpleasant things.

Kyle Sorrell’s Philip is suitably foppish (he is French, after all, and may have a secret to boot) and capable of a good double-cross himself.

Marty Burnett’s versatile set delineates scenes with drapes. Valerie Henderson’s costumes appropriate, and the early music sound beds (created by Chris Luessmann) are lovely.

“The Lion In Winter” is a fun watch as a royal sitcom. Just don’t take it as history.

The details

“The Lion In Winter” plays through Feb. 5 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets, call (858) 481-1055 or visit HERE.

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