The Lion in Winter 

Putting up your dukes
The Lion in Winter
Through Dec. 20 at Mad Cow Theatre
105 S. Magnolia Ave.

If you think that spending time with your family over the Christmas holidays is stressful, be glad that you're not one of the early Plantagenets, the royal family descended from Henry II. In 1183, their family gathering in the waning days of December involved treasonous plots, adulterous behavior, attempted murder and various lesser intrigues, betrayals and treacheries. Instead of showering his children with gifts, King Henry II, the less than doting paterfamilias, locked them in a dungeon. Talk about stress!

And yet James Goldman's 1966 play about the fictional goings-on of one of England's most historically dysfunctional clans (which was later transformed into an Academy Award—winning film starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole) is still something of a warm domestic comedy. But instead of quarrelling over who gets the keys to the station wagon on New Year's eve, the household arguments in The Lion in Winter concern themselves with which maladjusted son will get what vast swath of land and which will sit upon the royal throne after daddy is dead and gone.

Under Katrina Ploof's spirited direction, Mad Cow Theatre's production of the play hits comic high notes while staying true to Goldman's underlying theme — that war, and the human misery it causes, is less the result of vague geopolitical forces than the natural outcome of the selfish and puny behaviors of those who lead nations, or mislead them. Without exception, every member of the Plantagenet family we meet is ruthless, petty and vindictive — and yet still touchingly human.

The play's performances are strong throughout. Especially enjoyable is Peg O'Keef as Eleanor of Aquitaine, the banished queen who still loves Henry while at the same time remaining his implacable foe. Her character has the best laugh lines, and O'Keef's dry delivery makes the most of them. Sam Hazell plays the larger-than-life monarch as more of a sly fox, perhaps, than a fearsome lion, yet when the two old warriors tangle in mid-ring, we know we are witnessing a duo of heavyweights at the top of their connubial combat skills.

It's the human element that allows the audience to identify with these regal scoundrels, while at the same time being repelled by their conduct. For beneath the bickering and machinations lie the old wounds and deep resentments that come from misguided intentions and withheld love — the same sad dynamics that influence unhappy families all year long.

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