Eleanor of Aquitaine was arguably the greatest woman of the late medieval period. She was beautiful and brilliant, a patron of the arts and a cultivator of the chivalric code. She defied the church hierarchy, married a French king and dumped him for an English king, bore six daughters and four sons and helped two of her sons to the throne--Richard the Lion Heart and John, who later signed the Magna Carta. Today she lives on as the heroine of James Goldman's dysfunctional family drama The Lion in Winter, now in a spotty production at the Aurora Fox. And she still outclasses all the other characters in the show.
Goldman's play takes place on Christmas Eve in the year 1183. King Henry II has been estranged from Eleanor for many years, having replaced her with a series of mistresses. He has kept the queen imprisoned in one of his many castles, trotting her out occasionally for state functions but guarding her closely because she has fomented many a plot against him. Her three surviving sons now vie for the succession, and though Richard is the most able and the eldest, Henry prefers his youngest son, John--especially since Richard loves his mother and hates his father.
Eleanor still has one ace left--a very large piece of real estate called the Aquitaine that is her dowry and cannot be taken away from her except by consent. Henry wants it for John, and a complex series of intrigues ensues as Henry and Eleanor fence for power. Each is fully capable of wounding the other, and the emotional goring is frequent and bloody. Henry, for example, has taken as his mistress the Princess Alais--a woman who was raised and loved by Eleanor in happier days. Alais was betrothed to Richard when she was seven years old. But Richard is homosexual, and while he wants to marry Alais for political gain, his real love is his mother.
Deborah Persoff endows Eleanor with a Machiavellian charm that underscores all the more pointedly the character's one real vulnerability: She still loves her husband. Even after years of plotting to overthrow him (he was a cad, after all), Eleanor still longs for him. She takes his jibes about her age and dissipating beauty with humor, but they cut deep. Persoff coaxes delicate nuances of emotion to the surface; for example, the love Eleanor has for her eldest son doesn't appear to be entirely wholesome. Derek Munson makes a steely Richard, ready to melt as Mom pours on the heat.
Hal Terrance makes a mighty Henry--a bit larger than life--but it's a one-note performance. He's Persoff's match in terms of presence, but he doesn't work nearly as hard; where she goes for nuance, he's all bluster. And his isn't the only performance that has problems. Brian Folkins plays John like a five-year-old rather than a teenager--a strange and unfortunate choice. As Alais, the lovely Kimberly Payetta suffers from kittenishness. We need to feel Alais's womanly devotion and sexual energy in order to believe she can really threaten Eleanor's peace. We don't. Scott Bellot overacts as the French king, Phillip. And as Eleanor and Henry's middle son, Geoffrey, Stephen Moore rides his character's peevishness too far. The real Geoffrey was a lot smarter than this and far more evil.
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It's been said that every play ever written really reflects the playwright's own time. And painstakingly researched as it is, The Lion in Winter ends up speaking more to the psychological concerns of the twentieth century than to those of the twelfth. It introduces us to a great woman whose influence on Western civilization extends into our own time and serves as a reminder of the role sex plays in history--frightening to think how much hangs on such twisted threads. But it doesn't reveal enough about that long-defunct culture and its heroes. We're left wanting more--too much more.
The Lion in Winter, through February 9 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, 361-2910.