The Lion in Winter/The Miraculous Lamp | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Lion in Winter/The Miraculous Lamp


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Body Politic


Playwrights' Center

"It is 1183 and we're barbarians . . ." --Eleanor of Aquitaine, in The Lion in Winter

I'm afraid my first impression of Jennifer Bill had nothing whatever to do with her acting ability. No, it was an entirely superficial reaction, and I should probably be ashamed of myself. I looked at Bill and decided she was much too suburban to play Alais Capet, the young mistress of old King Henry II in James Goldman's The Lion in Winter. There was something too modern, too colloquial about her to be convincing as a high medieval French princess. Too healthy, as well. She had none of that attenuated, inbred delicacy you see in the tapestries. And not even costume designer Nancy Missimi's floor-length Gothic gowns could give it to her. On the contrary, the gowns--together with her head of long, thick, braided hair--just made Bill look that much more like one of the Evanston hippie girls I used to go to demonstrations and folk concerts with when I was in high school. I can picture her hanging around the long-gone Amazingrace dressed like that.

So I thought she was all wrong for the part.

But as the play progressed, I realized how fundamentally right she was. Casting Bill, it turned out, was not only appropriate--it was pretty clever: her contemporary looks supply a neat visual metaphor for the literary gimmick that makes The Lion in Winter work.

That gimmick being anachronism. In a note to the performing edition of the play, Goldman admits that it "contains anachronisms in speech, thought, habit, custom, and so on"; but that's an understatement--like saying La boheme contains some singing. In fact, The Lion in Winter would be impossible without its ten thousand violations of period authenticity. It simply wouldn't exist.

Oh, sure, the dramatis personae would remain unaffected. Henry II would still be the canny, formidable king of England; Eleanor of Aquitaine would still be his cultivated, treacherous--and occasionally incarcerated--queen; their sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John would still involve themselves in habitual intrigues against Dad and each other, while France's young King Philip II would still align and betray, align and betray. That's all part of the historical record.

The rest of Goldman's script, however, would have to go. Not only its idiomatic expressions and weary existentialist posturings, but its heavy, heavy infusion of pop psychology, too. Its endless oedipisms.

You couldn't have Geoffrey, for example, justifying his perfidy by recounting psychic wounds suffered at his third birthday party. Or bratty little John, in a snit, telling his sovereign, "You're a failure as a father, you know that." Or warlike Richard--newly, and almost literally, out of the closet--pouring his broken lionheart out to Henry, the absentee parent, saying, "You never called for me. You never said my name. I would have walked or crawled. I'd have done anything. . . . I only wanted you."

Dump the sentimental Freudianism and there's really nothing left of this show. First produced in 1966 (with a cast that, by the way, included Hair coauthor James Rado as Richard), the play basically asks the question: What if the Plantagenets had gone through a course of modern psychoanalysis? Or, more accurately: What if, like the rest of us, they'd only read a few magazine articles on the subject?

This fixation on family neurotica makes The Lion in Winter plenty stupid, but also lots of fun. Just watching these guys run around in their doublets, yearning for a hug and a "Well done, son," is silly enough. Goldman doesn't stop there, though: he's got his own sense of the absurd. An extended passage, where each prince shows up in turn to plot treason with Philip II, plays as a cross between the arras scene from Hamlet and the stateroom bit from A Night at the Opera--at once sweetly mawkish and absolutely ridiculous.

The mawkishness might have matured into something like poignancy if director Richard S. Kordos had allowed a sharper anger to penetrate this Body Politic production. John throws his tantrums and Geoffrey has his bouts of trembly lipped passion here, sure; but their fits are always undercut in the end. Neither they nor anyone else gets a clean moment in which to declare--unconditionally and without irony--that this really hurts. The play may have its jokes, both intentional and inadvertent, but those jokes needn't exclude the possibility of a sympathetic response every now and then.

Laura Whyte's Eleanor would benefit more than anyone from the gravity conferred by a sense of genuine anger. Evidently directed by Kordos toward a breezy sarcasm reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn in Adam's Rib, Whyte never manages to touch on the intense pissed-offedness that must at least partially animate a brilliant woman whose husband has held her under house arrest for a full decade. The lack of any such emotion makes her seem empty and trivial.

Ned Schmidtke's Henry is no more substantial than Whyte's Eleanor, but it matters less in his case. Both he and his character can get by on a winning gruffness. Philip Euling is wonderfully puny and pustulant as John; Scott Benjaminson wonderfully statuesque and cool as Philip II. Still, Christopher Cartmill's Geoffrey is by far my favorite prince: a perfect Basil Rathbone of a conniver.

Tony Mockus Jr. has nothing of the warrior he must project as Richard. I wonder how James Rado came across in '66.

And, speaking of the 60s, what about Jennifer Bill? She still seems totally wrong to me: a complete anachronism in Henry's medieval court. Which, of course, makes her absolutely right for the role.

On the other hand, there's nothing--nothing at all, anywhere--right about Avrum Krause's The Miraculous Lamp. At this time of year Jewish parents may get desperate for a kid's show that offers a little yiddishe tam--just to offset the incredible onslaught of the Christmas monolith. Just to help our kids through the annual Jolliness Pogrom.

Well, however desperate we are, we aren't desperate enough for The Miraculous Lamp. Inept and insipid and puerile to the point of offensiveness, this show about three kids lost in a cave on the first night of Hanukkah promotes the worst sort of pious idiocy. With stupid, venal stories about how the Lord does tricks with candles and either kills bad people or takes their money away, it promotes what a friend of mine calls the God-will-get-me-a-parking-space school of theology. This isn't Judaism--it's scary camp-fire stories, calculated to frighten children into believing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.

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