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BWW Review: 'Will No One Rid Me of This Troublesome Wife?' Theatre Memphis' THE LION IN WINTER

Let's see now -- older married man with mistress, seething ex-wife, resentful and mistrustful offspring -- where was Dr. Phil? Alas, nowhere in sight in Chinon during the Christmas of 1183, as the powerful English king Henry II has released his imprisoned wife (and sparring partner) Eleanor of Aquitaine and allowed her admittance to a family gathering (along with his mistress Alais). Is it for personal or political reasons? Perhaps a bit of both? Henry, great in stature and accomplishments, has to decide which of his sons (none of whom will historically "measure up") will become the future King of England. It's a Lear-like choice, and poor Henry has "slim pickings." With the oldest son dead, the three remaining are a snarling, disgruntled lot -- in one corner (Eleanor's), there's the pillage-prone Richard (later Richard the Lionhearted, who will spend most of his time abroad); in the other (Henry's), there's the pimply, unwashed, and feckless John (later, a famously unpopular king who will be forced to capitulate to baronial pressure and sign a little document known as the Magna Carta). Oh, yes, and then there's the ignored, Machiavellian Geoffrey, mistrusted by both parents and willing to play anyone on the human chessboard.

The acclaimed LION IN WINTER, with its acidic, blistering dialogue (courtesy of author James Goldman) and taut direction by Irene Crist, takes full advantage of Theatre Memphis' strengths in costume design (Andre Bruce Ward) and set (Jack Yates' massive, cold-gray castle) -- and, in particular, casting. As "Henry II, " Charles K. Hodges is a towering presence; physically, he casts a shadow over the actors who play his three sons; cagey and experienced, he is able to judge and manipulate not only his offspring, but the young French King Philip (not quite as naive as he is initially perceived, and with quite a few cards up his royal sleeves). Most cautious, however, is his relationship with his estranged wife, the brilliant former Queen of France, Eleanor of Aquitaine, played by the gifted Christina Wellford Scott (anyone who failed to see her exquisite "Mary Tyrone" in Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT missed what could have been deemed a Master Class in acting). (Interestingly, Ms. Scott has assayed roles defined in film by that Gold Standard of Actresses, Katharine Hepburn.) Eleanor is a great creation -- she's a "Margo Channing" of the Middle Ages, with more than a soupcon of "Eve Harrington" in her character; because she is a woman doomed by the times to remain in the shadow of her husband, and because, like a coiled snake, she has been imprisoned throughout the four seasons, she is more than ready to strike while slithering around the Christmas tree. Watching these two actors assess each other (and others) is one of the joys of this production.

The sons are distillations of their characters as defined by history. "Richard," in his military garb, is nonetheless a "closet case" -- and in Gabe Beutel-Gunn's proud-but-tormented interpretation, is tremendously effective when his macho facade cracks (notably with his mother and, surprisingly, in a scene with the young Philip). As the sniveling "John," Damian Stuchko has what might be called the "comic" role -- a historically unpopular character, his role, as written, is broad, indeed; and Mr. Stuchko is not afraid to tackle it with no holds barred: He gets the biggest laughs. Then, there is the hurt (and capable of hurting) "Geoffrey," frustrated that he is not even worthy of monarchical consideration; Jeffrey Wellford Posson ably communicates the "wheels turning" in this sour, desperate interpretation. Rounding out the cast are the decent, pawn-like Emma Vescovo as "Alais," content to be at the side of the aging "Henry"; and the wily, bitter Nic Picou, as her recently crowned brother, the young King of France. It's a smart, talented ensemble.

There are so many issues at work in LION IN WINTER. When the play was written in the late 1960's, the "difference" between the roles of men and women in society was, of course, even greater than it is now; and both Eleanor and Alais bristle at their subjugation in "a man's world." The family issues, too -- an absentee father, jealous partners, resentful siblings, parental favoritism -- have been played out before (holiday gatherings lend themselves to literary treatments; i.e., the script for the film HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS). However, Mr. Goldman's dialogue is a "high brow" affair. What works well for it also, interestingly, works somewhat against it. While swords and daggers are brandished at times in the play, they're not nearly as sharp as the dialogue (do people talk like this in real life?): Each caustic line almost seems to outdo the other. As brilliant as all this is, it can, perhaps, be a bit exhausting. It's as if a bitter Kaufman and Hart amped up a Wikipedia summary of Henry's reign. However, there's no denying the humor and hurt in all the verbal repartee. Through February 7.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)