Masks and Machetes

The Lion in Winter in the Leverett Old Library Theater tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m.

IN CHINON, Christmas is bitter. The season of peace and love brings the family of Henry II together only to do violence to one another. Their weapons are their wounds: old snubs and older betrayals. The law they fight under is the law of the jungle, where only the strong and the cunning survive from one holiday to the next, and the prize they contest is the crown, emblem of land and power.

Land and power. But is that all? "You think I'm motivated by a love of real estate?" Queen Eleanor demands. All this verbal carnage must have deeper roots. Like light glinting off the edge of a steel knife, appearances in The Lion in Winter are blinding. The viciousness and deceit, the shell of anger and the hollowness of despair are masks the royal family wear to cloak the more profound hurt of rejection. If they cannot have love, Henry, Eleanor and their three squabbling sons will have hatred--not merely hatred, but complete and utter decimation of their victims and tormentors.

The movement of The Lion in Winter, through increasing verbal violence, is towards the temporary stripping away of these masks, the revelation of the terrible hungers which move these men and women to destruction. Each character both resists and realizes his own identity through acting: dissimulation is the armor of internecine struggle, but after a while the masks become frozen in place, forever blocking out the vestiges of humanity underneath. Lies are stacked so thick that appearance and reality are confounded, and an anguished Queen cries out: "Scenes. I can't touch my sons except in scenes."

The Lion in Winter is pure theater, verbally lush and crammed with dramatic peaks. Every scene builds to a stunning climax, as betrayals and counter-betrayals blaze into a crescendo of frustration and defeat. The play's stylized characterizations and heightened language looked like so much posturing and anachronism on the screen; but back on the stage, in the Leverett Old Library Theatre, they form the underpinnings of a first-rate production.

Director Joan Channick has a keen sense of tone and pacing, and, for the most part, she guides her actors through the play's precipitous shifts of mood without any loss of balance. Her success is ensured by a brilliant cast, who play their roles--and the roles within their roles--to the hilt.

At the center of the play is the duo of King Henry and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose love/hate relationship fuels the dramatic action. Henry keeps Eleanor locked up during most of the year, but at Christmas-time he lets her out, and that's when the warring begins. Thomas Champion and Laura Bartell are well-matched as the estranged couple, who enjoy picnicking on each other when they're not feeding on themselves. Champion carries off the complex part of Henry--torn between his lusts of the moment and his fierce passion for immortality--with an enviable ease. His inflections, his mannerisms, even his blond beard are all just right.

Bartell, by contrast, has a tendency to rely overly on her technique, to think her part rather than feel it. During Eleanor's more controlled moments, she seems to be measuring the beats between words, savoring her lines purely as poetry rather than as expressions of character. Still, when Bartell lets go, as she does at the height of her confrontations with Henry, she is stunning. Her range grandly encompasses comic high-spiritedness and tragic disillusionment, and when she tells Henry she still adores him, every word wrenched out of her as though by a rack, her body, face and voice all conspire to compel absolute belief. In the end, it is a supremely memorable performance.

Henry and Eleanor's sons may not exactly be lovable, but they're far from dull. Daniel Sherman plays John, Henry's favorite, very broadly, with an almost farcical glee. As "the family nothing," nicknamed a "walking pustule" by his brother Richard, Sherman gets to deliver such prize lines as "You turd." and "You're a stinker and you stink." In contrast to Sherman's comic posturing, Eric Luftman acts Richard Lionheart, Eleanor's darling, with straight-faced sobriety. Whether stiffly demanding his rights or reviling the rest of the family, he is a model of sullen, subdued rage. In between is Geoffrey (Jon Goerner), all "cogs and gears," the son nobody loves. Goerner, playing another in a long line of slimy and insidious characters, is simultaneously oily and reserved, turning in his most precise performance to date.

Weak spots in an otherwise solid line-up are Elizabeth Meade as Alais, Henry's latest mistress, and Jeffrey Trescott as Philip, the French king. Slender and sweet-voiced, Meade looks and sounds perfect for the part, but her emotional range is limited to a state of placid melancholy. Trescott is simply not commanding enough in his role as monarch: he exudes hints of cunning, but none of the regality or stateliness which set Henry apart. Nevertheless, both Meade and Trescott, starting out stiffly, get progressively better as the play goes on.

Under Channick's direction, The Lion in Winter neatly negotiates the emotional currents which propel the tortured Plantagenet family. A few times, only a few, Channick and cast falter: Eleanor's exclamation that Geoffrey has loved her all along comes out of nowhere, and Richard's homosexuality is discovered too suddenly, without sufficient preparation. By and large, however, the production zigzags its way excitingly forward, interrupted only by a series of excessively noisy and prolonged set changes between scenes.

Art may mask reality, just as The Lion in Winter's glittering set, fitted out with red velvet and gold-emblazoned lions, essentially masks a dramatic landscape as bleak as a snow-embalmed mountain. In this world, mistakes trigger others in an avalanche of errors, which makes retreat to hope and love impossible. "We can't stop and we can't go back. There's nothing else," Henry cries in despair. But even a drama of despair can offer testimony to the power of human endurance. At the end, when Henry and Eleanor re-mask, confronting the wreck of their lives with equanimity, they score a small triumph--a triumph in which the Leverett House company richly shares.