This ‘Lion’ roars with great performances

Harry Cherkinian

Family gatherings at the holidays can be a tricky business, especially if family members haven’t seen each other for a while. For the holiday gathering that sparks playwright James Goldman’s black comedy “The Lion in Winter,” revenge ends up being the main course served.

It’s Christmas Eve 1183 at King Henry II’s palace in Chinon, France. His guests include imprisoned wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and their three quarreling sons – Richard (the Lionhearted), Geoffrey and John. But there’s no festive holiday spirit to be found among these feisty, fighting relatives, much to the audience’s amusement for two hours and 20 minutes.

Henry, who’s managed to survive to the ripe old age of 50, has brought along his very young mistress Alais, 23. She’s betrothed to Henry’s oldest son Richard, and Richard is secretly in love with her brother King Philip, which is one of the very few instances of true human emotion seen in “Lion.” But in keeping with this emotional bloodbath, a fragile moment of vulnerability is skewered with betrayal.

Which of the three sons will succeed Henry as the next King of England? Will Henry annul his marriage to Eleanor and marry Alais? And will Eleanor ever be freed from her captivity (at Henry’s hand) of 10 years – and counting?

While Goldman has based his story on fact, the interpretation and the blistering dialogue are pure – and delightful – fabrication. “Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” quips a wry Eleanor, after a nasty fight.

Chamber Theatre is in its second of a three-year collaboration with area universities (last year’s was “Picnic” with UW-Milwaukee). For “Lion,” the group partnered with Marquette’s Drama Department.

Student actors Alexandra Bonesho, J. Patrick Cahill and Joe Picchetti are among the seven-member ensemble, and three faculty designers were involved in the production: Debra Krajec (costumes), Chester Loeffler-Bell (lighting) and Stephen Hudson-Mairet (set).

Under C. Michael Wright’s well-paced direction, Brian Mani’s Henry is all bluster and bravado, with a sharp mind beneath the folds of his robes. But in her best work to date, Tracy Michelle Arnold is the exquisite jewel in this production’s crown. Her every mannerism and inflection is as tough as it is vulnerable. Her Eleanor still has some fight left but is tiring of the never-ending battles of the heart. Brava.

Marcus Truschinski is steady and solid as Richard, his undercurrent of moodiness ready to explode at any opportunity. Lenny Banovez, as the forgotten middle son Geoffrey, maintains a fine balance as he moves back and forth between sides to suit his advantage. Of the student actors, Picchetti’s King Philip fares best, exploring the depths of this enigmatic yet shrewd character, showcasing a youthful naiveté as he exploits Richard’s love for his personal gain.

“You’ve got the girl, the crown and the whole black, bloody business,” Henry rages at Richard. “Isn’t that enough?”

With this roaring “Lion,” you eat what you kill. And enough is never enough.

“The Lion in Winter,” produced as a collaboration between Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Marquette University, runs through May 1 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway. Call 414-291-7800 or visit www.milwaukeechambertheatre.com.