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‘Lion in Winter’ tries harder than it needs to

A really fine production of “The Lion in Winter” can be every bit as compelling as a tri-level chess match played by two pros at the top of their game. Each tactical move is anticipated and deflected by cross or double cross.

Even better, this game is played by not two but seven players, each determined to win, though not necessarily the same prize.

Set in the castle of England’s King Henry II in Chinon, France, over two days of the 1183 Christmas celebration, Henry, his wife, his mistress and his three sons parry and spar, scheme and betray, and plot and conspire over who will become Henry’s heir in the production now on stage at The Mountain Playhouse.

Richard has the military skill to hold Henry’s lands. Geoffrey has the political talent to make deals and treaties. John is Henry’s favorite. Adding to the intrigue are Alais, Henry’s young mistress who is also engaged to one of his sons; her brother Philip who is the young king of France; Henry’s wife and queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom he has imprisoned for leading a revolt against him; and Henry himself, who wants his kingdom to survive him intact.

This witty, cerebral exercise requires nothing more than a talented cast and a director’s appreciation of its high-wire political balancing act to keep it moving.

So it’s somewhat surprising to see what director Guy Stroman and his production team — scenic designer April Beiswenger, costume designer Kimberly Stockton, sound designer Matthew Fromme and lighting designer Brandon Ryan Pugh — have wrought.

Tall, brightly colored banner-like panels decorate the stage with representations of saints and kings and designs either Medieval or Celtic. Cones of colored light slant across the stage. New Age-ish music and chants pour from speakers. Once the show gets underway, clouds of red illuminated mist billow from below, and shafts of rock show-style lighting slant and pool onstage and toward the audience.

Platforms and short step units make it difficult for actors to move about and send them clumping up and down steps to enter or exit awkwardly rather than with the strong, confident gestures that would better serve them.

The show also missteps by overloading scenes with emotional abandon. These are political humans who use their anger and affection as tools. Characters too often play the obvious emotion rather than the larger intention. When one of this lot gives you a hug, brace yourself for a knife in the back.

Nick Ruggeri brings a scrappy, blue-collar aura to a Henry II who too often descends to impotent shouting.

As Queen Eleanor, Suzanne Ishee appears most at home with the show’s softer comic moments. Abe Reybold almost makes you believe him capable of Richard’s war mongering. Franklin Clay Boyd is a properly sulky and witless John. Chan Harris’ Geoffrey exhibits flashes of the wheels and gears of the skilled negotiator. Jeffrey Correia’s King Philip is a colorless cipher. Jenn Morse imbues Henry’s mistress Alais with intelligence, assertiveness and vibrance, making her far more interesting than the passive pawn she’s usually portrayed as.

Additional Information:

More Information

The Mountain Playhouse production of ‘The Lion in Winter’ continues through Sunday at Mountain Playhouse, Route 985, 1/2 mile north of US Route 30 in Jennerstown.

Performances: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; 2 p.m. today and Friday; 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $15 to $24; $7 for students. Details: (814) 629-9201.


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