Eleanor of Aquitane may be decorating for Christmas in "The Lion in Winter," but there's no basking in the glow of holiday cheer for this back-stabbing royal family.
Set in Christmas 1183 at King Henry II's palace in Chinon, France, this 1966 play by James Goldman about clashing family ambitions plays for comedy at the Ohio Shakespeare Festival in Akron. In their endless barrage of putdowns, confrontations and one-upmanship, Henry and Eleanor act like marriage is a zero-sum game that must end in one spouse being annihilated.
And, boy, is their blunt nastiness funny, as delivered by Dede Klein as the conniving Eleanor and Terry Burgler as the scheming Henry.
Henry lets Eleanor out of the tower where he imprisoned her a decade earlier just for Christmas and Easter. He put her there because she tried to start a rebellion against him, and we soon realize that Eleanor is up to her old tricks.
The two snipe at and manipulate each other nearly constantly as each plays whatever part they feel is necessary to try to make his or her favored son king.
Their three sons are in on the gamesmanship, too. They are Richard the warrior (Derrick Winger); John (Benjamin Gregg) who throws repeated temper tantrums; and the brooding but wily Geoff (Geoff Knox), who's always trying to get his parents to notice him. Their manipulative dynamics and shifting alliances are fun to watch, too.
They're directed by Nancy Cates and costumed as beautifully as ever by Marty LaConte.
The play's title refers to the aging monarch Henry, who is repeatedly reminded by his sons that he won't be living much longer. There are sniping references Eleanor's aging, too.
When Henry's mistress Alais asks him how his queen is, he responds, "Decaying, I suppose."
DeLee Cooper is beautiful as the French princess Alais, referred to as the "family whore," whom Henry also uses as a human pawn in his elaborate game. But even she is single-minded in her fight to get what she wants.
The gamesmanship extends to Alais' half-brother, French monarch Philip, played by Jason Leupold. Appearing bored with the battles of will he's witnessing, this king is willing to help start a war.
There's a lot of testosterone in this play but the regal Klein holds her own as the steel-willed queen who is revealed to have been a haphazard mother who never really liked her children.
Eleanor has some of the best tongue-in-cheek humor as she asks her scheming relatives, "What family doesn't have their ups and downs?"
But Klein and Burgler show some genuine emotion amid all the plotting; she ruminates that life stings more than death, and he cries brokenheartedly at one point that he's lost all three of his sons. In the end, their characters carry an odd respect for each other and their many tricks.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.