Court Theatre turns ‘The Lion in Winter’ into heady hybrid of thrills, drama and occasional laughs

A chilling Henry II contends with his sons and his lovers in the 12th century family drama, alternately epic and intimate.

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England’s King Henry II (John Hoogenakker) is romancing Alais Capet (Netta Walker) when his queen, Eleanor (Rebecca Spence, background), returns from prison in “The Lion in Winter.”

England’s King Henry II (John Hoogenakker) is romancing Alais Capet (Netta Walker) when his queen, Eleanor (Rebecca Spence, background), returns from prison in “The Lion in Winter.”

Michael Brosilow

Tolstoy famously wrote that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Singular though each fraught family is, few are as entertaining as the 12th century tribe of British royals at the ruthless, provocative and wickedly funny heart of playwright James Goldman’s 1966 play “The Lion in Winter.”

Just in time for the holidays, director Ron OJ Parson shapes a Christmas Eve-set battle royale for Court Theatre. Alternately epic and intimate, “The Lion in Winter” is a Christmas story unlike any other.

The plot is fairly minimal in Goldman’s dialogue-driven drama, which was adapted into the 1968 Oscar-winning movie of the same name. The story unfolds over Christmas Eve 1183 as Henry II, King of England (John Hoogenakker), and his family gather at their castle in Anjou.

‘The Lion in Winter’

The Lion in Winter

When: Through Dec. 3

Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.

Tickets: $56 - $88

Info: CourtTheatre.org

Run time: Two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission

First up on the 50-year-old monarch’s agenda: deciding which of his three sons will succeed him as king. The matter is paramount because, as Henry explains, at stake is nothing less than whether his line will expand its God-given rights to conquer and vanquish for centuries to come.

Second on Henry’s list of holiday priorities: adding the Aquitaine — a piece of land second only to the Garden of Eden if Henry’s reverent descriptions are to be believed — to his realm. Alas, the Aquitaine belongs to Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Rebecca Spence). Her arrival in Anjou marks the first time she’s been out of prison since Henry declared her a seditious threat to the crown and locked her up a decade earlier.

Possible heirs to the crown include Henry’s youngest son John (Kenneth La’Ron Hamilton), middle son Geoffrey (Brandon Miller) and oldest son Richard the Lionheart (Shane Kenyon). Christmas at the castle also includes guest Philip Capet, the teenage king of France (Anthony Baldasare). Henry’s confidante and lover, the French princess Alais Capet (Netta Walker), is there as well, pulled unwillingly into a human chess game where she’s the only pawn.

Henry’s sons John (Kenneth La’Ron Hamilton, left) and Geoffrey (Brandon Miller) vie to succeed him.

Henry’s sons John (Kenneth La’Ron Hamilton, left) and Geoffrey (Brandon Miller) vie to succeed him.

Michael Brosilow

Parson’s ensemble creates a complex, riveting genre hybrid: This “Lion in Winter” is a psychological thriller and a family drama and — intermittently — a near-farcical comedy, although humor comes with a cost. Stump-dumb princes and vainglorious monarchs are funny, as long as you don’t think about the dungeons they build or the heads they chop off. “The Lion in Winter” makes you think about both.

Hoogenakker’s casually charismatic Henry II is an incongruous Everyman, his exasperations with daily life with his wayward children and spouse familiar and relatable. Initially, Henry seems like someone you’d want to have a goblet of spiced wine with. But kings don’t create dynasties by being nice guys, and Hoogenakker also makes Henry’s ruthless willingness to silence and destroy anyone who threatens him chilling.

Traditionally, Henry is the titular apex predator. Parson gives us a well-matched set of two lethal felines. Spence’s Eleanor is vivid and layered, every inch Henry’s equal. Eleanor — queen of France before she was queen of England — knows how to play Henry better than anyone else in the castle. Eleanor can go from teary and sincere to wily and calculating in the space of a breath. It’s a fascinating portrayal.

Walker takes a harrowing journey as Henry’s mistress Alais, a young woman trapped between two seasoned power-mongers. Walker deftly shows just how quickly, brutally and powerfully Alais learns from Henry and his family. By the final scenes, Alais is negotiating for herself, demanding bloody, irreversible sacrifices with the assurance of a monarch.

The brothers are a disparate trio. Hamilton’s John is earnest, dim and heart-wrenching in his repeated, desperate insistence that “Dad loves me best.” As middle child Geoffrey, Miller brings the comedy, bemoaning the unfairness of being forever overlooked. Kenyon’s Richard the Lionheart is the mercurial killer in the trio, raised to get rid of anything or anyone that threatened him. His murderousness makes his didn’t-see-that-coming romantic entanglement all the more endearing.

And as Philip Capet, king of France, Baldasare utterly nails the deadpan surliness of a teenager bored with the adults in the room and the cunning of a man who learned early how to keep a lifelong secret.

The production plays out on set designer Linda Buchanan’s towering, shadowy castle walls. Christine Pascual creates a lesson in early stealth wealth: From the brothers’ tunics to Eleanor’s lightly sparkled gown, the costumes look luxurious but never showy. The aesthetics help make “The Lion in Winter” roar. Henry ruled more than 800 years ago. Parson makes it feel as familiar as today.

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