Lively 'Lion' spotlights royal foibles

Tribune critic

Historical dramas invariably tell us more about the era of their creation than the time under review. In these current days of titillating premium cable, the likes of the Tudors and the Plantagenets have become very sexualized creatures, clawing at each other's bodies like primal beasts, pausing only to gnaw on the odd chicken bone.

But in 1966, when James Goldman wrote "The Lion in Winter," fashionable historical dramas were erudite, literary plays with attractive roles that mirrored modern-day marital and moral problems without requiring nudity. The kind of thing that snagged Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, back when O'Toole was less weird. That pair made the "The Lion in Winter," currently in enjoyably juicy revival at Writers' Theatre, famous in the 1968 movie.And thus Henry II and Eleanor became like something out of Noel Coward's "Private Lives." Man in midlife crisis, replete with feisty mistress. Woman fighting off middle age by sharpening her claws. Machiavellian sons in various shades of Oedipal crisis. In Goldman's hands, all these ancients became very self-aware creatures.

"We all have knives," says Eleanor, dryly, at one point in the script, "it is eleven eighty-three and we're barbarians."

Right. Just the way they talked in the Middle Ages.

So you don't judge this one on verisimilitude. You judge it mostly on juice. And you mourn, wistfully, for an era when the broad American audience was more willing to sit and listen to characters talk about matters of substance, even if their real historical counterparts would have no idea what the heck they were talking about.

Thanks to the husband-and-wife, King-and-Queen team of Michael Canavan and Shannon Cochran, the smart-mouthed angst flows along nicely in Rick Snyder's pleasingly primal production. You wish the leading pair had more sexual tension and political bite in places -- it's not entirely believable here that Canavan's gruff Henry is holding Cochran's deliciously full and spunky Eleanor in check. But you find yourself quite enamored with the couple.

With decent pacing, throbbing music and a very attractive cast, Snyder comes up with a much livelier than usual "Lion" that maintains a very fresh and fluid landscape around the dysfunctional royals.

Along with some delightfully gilded trappings from the designers, there are several hot, emotionally alive performances here from newcomers to the intimate Writers' stage.

New faces to watch in Glencoe include the simmering, pouting Laura Coover as Henry's dangerously needy mistress, Alais, the insouciantly handsome Michael Fagin as the King of France and Rob Belushi as a deftly irritating adolescent that might just remind you of one you have at home.

"T"The Lion in Winter" When: Through Aug. 3 Where: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes Tickets: $40-$64 at 847-842-6000

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