Bridge Street Theatre’s “Lion in Winter” Sharpens its Knives

If “home for the holidays” gives you a special seasonal anxiety and dread as we look forward to gathering our warring tribes to celebrate our various end-of-year traditions, you’ll feel right at home with the royal family at the center of James Goldman’s 1966 Broadway boulevard comedy “The Lion in Winter.”

Christopher Joel Onken, Orlando Grant, Steven Patterson, Seth McNeill/John Sowle

It’s Christmas, 1183 and King Henry II has gathered his mistress Alais, his three sons, his imprisoned wife Eleanor, and last but not least King Phillip of France to set all on each other and settle who will succeed him as King of England. The play mixes historical facts with bold characterizations and zippy one-liners to present this story of family, legacy, and the worth of a life’s work.

On a first Preview before an audience, Bridge Street triumphed with its modest tech and exemplary strong portrayals from its seven-member cast. Every actor had a thorough understanding of their character, how to portray them and what they wanted from the others. There are many laughs but if the humor wasn’t always emphasized as the play requires, the story and themes of inherited aberrant behavior are rock solid. This family knows how to size one another up, defend and attack against all comers.

Seth McNeill, Leigh Strimbeck, Orlando Grant, Steven Patterson, Michael Raver & Geneva Turner/John Sowle

The main attraction, of course, is King Henry and his estranged wife Eleanor and the top-of-the-bill is filled with BST Associate Artist Steven Patterson and lovely, luminous Leigh Strimbeck. Their exchanges started tentatively as Henry welcomed Eleanor whom he has released from prison for the festivities but quickly warmed the castle as they pressed their favorites for the throne and she dreams of her freedom.

Their favorites shift from the shifty youngest Orlando Grant as John, to the strong stalwart Richard of Seth McNeill, while the dark and plotting Geoffrey of Michael Raver waits in the shadows until he surprises with volume and fury.

As strong as the blood relatives were, the full-voiced and indignant Alais of Geneva Turner and especially Christopher Joel Onken as Phillip at least equaled them. He looks so young and pliable here, it makes you appreciate his performance as the afflicted Edmond in last year’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” all the more.

Leigh Strimbeck & Michael Raver/John Sowle

The set designed and constructed by the director John Sowle is amazing with a turntable center-stage and arches on either side. The revolves (accompanied by N. Jennings White’s fun music) with minimal dressing easily reveal half a dozen different locations including the perfect farcical bedroom tapestry scene. The costumes by Michelle Rogers are even better. There’s fur, leather, suede and royal raiment for Phillip. Everyone looks great and suggestive of the period.

It’s a divided family gathered for sustenance, support, and succession. There’s more than enough conflict, fun and historical intrigue to hold your attention from Bridge Street’s “The Lion in Winter.”

Through 11/20 @ Bridge Street Theatre


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