'Winter' chess game goes to queen Review: Using knives and words as weapons, Everyman's 'Lion' just roars.

October 14, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look, and I'm the only pawn," Henry II's mistress, Alais, rages in James Goldman's historical comedy, "The Lion in Winter."

Chess is a near-perfect metaphor for the entire play, which is receiving a stunning production at Everyman Theatre. I say "near" perfect because this 12th-century saga isn't the standard, cool, intellectual chess game.

No, this is chess as blood sport -- physical, dangerous and with plenty of knives. "Of course he has a knife. We all have knives. It is 1183 and we're barbarians," Henry's queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, calmly explains when her oldest son, Richard, pulls a knife on her youngest, John.

Directed by Donald Hicken with down-and-dirty fight choreography by Lewis Shaw, Everyman's "Lion" roars with intellect and bares its claws with a vengeance. The production's physicality bursts forth as soon as we meet Henry's three sons, who are all vying for the crown.

The nasty jealous trio enters fighting, with Wayne Nitz's John, a 16-year-old weakling, repeatedly thrown to the ground. No sooner does that skirmish end than he and Drew Kahl's Geoffrey, the middle son, are dueling with holly branches.

More than the opening scene between Jerry Whiddon's Henry and Maia Desanti's gentle Alais, this second scene sets the production's tone, and not just because of the brothers' warfare. In this scene we meet their mother, Tana Hicken's Eleanor, and though Goldman's title refers to Henry, at Everyman the play belongs to his queen.

From her regal bearing to her bristling intelligence, Hicken (who is married to the director) thoroughly embodies this elegant, fiercely determined queen. Best of all, underneath the polished exterior -- so quick with a quip -- she leaves no question of Eleanor's enduring love for Henry. The physical nature of the production reinforces this bond as well, when a bout of spatting and hitting sends them tumbling into bed.

Whiddon's Henry is a little less effective. Although he ably conveys the monarch's weariness, his tired, jaded interpretation occasionally causes him to swallow his lines. Kahl is a revelation as Geoffrey, the crafty overlooked middle son. "He isn't flesh: He's a device; he's wheels and gears," Henry says of Geoffrey, and chilly Kahl is a Geoffrey whose wheels never stop spinning.

John Benoit also shines as shrewd Philip, the 17-year-old French king who has come to England to demand that his sister Alais either marry Henry's heir, according to a contract made more than a decade ago, or that Henry return the land that was her dowry.

One of the few disappointments is the usually dependable Kyle Prue, whose Richard has no shadings -- just a permanent sullen scowl.

Everyman has co-produced "Lion" with Silver Spring's Round House Theatre, and the advantages of pooled resources are evident in set designer Dan Conway's rough-hewn medieval castle, in Rosemary Pardee's period costumes and, especially, in original music by Kieran O'Hare.

"The Lion in Winter" is a hybrid of sorts -- a play whose 12th-century characters speak in a 20th-century style. People don't change, Goldman seems to be saying. Or perhaps he's saying we haven't progressed much in 800 years. Either way, Everyman's cast bridges the gap between the centuries with panache.

'The Lion in Winter'

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2: 30 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 1

Tickets: $12-$15

Call: 410-752-2208

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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