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Absolute Power

It's Good to Be The King-Even With The Wife, Children, Mistress, and Aides Plotting About

Been Caught Kneeling: Michael Leicht Stoops To Sherrionne Brown.

By John Barry | Posted 12/5/2007

It's Christmas 1183, and in Merrie Olde England, it's that time of the year again. The yule log gets lit, the mulled wine starts bubbling, the presents get wrapped, and the holly gets hung. But like most English Kings, Henry Plantagenet brings his work home with him. It's also time to lock up his scheming kids, disinherit them, get the wife carted off, persuade the Pope to annul his marriage, and start working with his favorite mistress on a new line of heirs.

James Goldman's over-the-top historical drama is probably best known for the award winning 1968 movie version starring Peter O'Toole. Instead of running off to purchase the DVD, though, head down to the newly revamped Spotlighters Theatre, where, in the title role, Phil Gallagher is delivering one of the year's strongest performances. For the moment, he's claimed that role as his own.

"Strongest" isn't a casually applied term. The Lion in Winter is really about strength. As the eponymous Lion, Gallagher's Henry is essentially a King Lear who still has his mojo, and isn't ready for early retirement. If anything, he's at the peak of his power, but he's also at that point in middle age when he's conscious of the hourglass. And at 50, he's starting to overplay his hand. He hasn't experienced his comeuppance, but by the end of the play, we know it's going to come. Call it a mid-life crisis.

For the moment, he's got much to be proud of: He's conquered large chunks of France, the Pope kowtows to him, and his kingdom is swarming with his bastards and mistresses. The only crack in his armor is his royally dysfunctional family. This little family of five draws a strange energy from their mutual antagonisms. Without the internecine wars, the infidelities, the power grabs, or the cynical betrayals, there would be nothing for these people to do but hang around a large unheated castle drinking goblets of wine. So this is, generally, a family of chess players. They can't stand one another, but then again, their relentless power struggle is what keeps their minds and spirits fresh.

Henry's bete noir is his wife of 30 years, Eleanor (Sherrionne Brown). She has been locked up in his castle for 10 years while being banished from the royal bedchamber in favor of younger mistresses. Even under lock and key, she schemes to overthrow her husband. Her accessories in this are her three sons, who are coming of age. They include John (Zachrey Hornberger), who is a gutless whiner. Geoffrey (Shane Logue), the third in line for the throne, is a slimeball: while unimpressive, he's also got a streak of ruthlessness. Finally, Richard Lionheart (Michael Leicht), her personal favorite, is chomping at the bit. He is sullen, brutal, battle-scarred, and sexually frustrated. He's the odds-on favorite for succession. Complicating this entire web are two outsiders who are ready to side with the winning team. They are the foppish French dandy Philip (Alex Peri) and Alais (Eileen Cuff), who is Richard's current squeeze.

Brown, who has taken on the double mantle of director and female lead in this production, has maintained the delicate balance of dark humor and genuine pathos in the relationship between Eleanor and Henry. What is fascinating is the preternatural ability of the husband and wife to maneuver between actual displays of affection and mordant, dark humor. There's no gratuitous affection displayed here. Henry and Eleanor have been at one another's throats for decades. But like old rivals, they have spent so much time playing with one another's emotions and aspirations that they've built up a fascinating language of their own.

As Henry, Gallagher is less of an aging king than an obsessive player who is fascinated with manipulating his wife's weaknesses. Gallagher's Henry multitasks his roles as lover, father, husband, and king-for-the-moment without ever losing the flavor of Goldman's script. Goldman's modern humor is closer to that of Edward Albee than William Shakespeare, and Gallagher delicately delivers offhand zingers and bizarre rants without ever losing control of the role.

Gallagher carries the play, but he has plenty of support. Brown takes a low key approach to the role of Eleanor; if that falls a little flat at the beginning, her affection for her husband and her own understated will to power gradually manifest themselves in a relationship that flowers in its own odd way. Returning to Spotlighters after four years, Leicht is also one of the play's strong points. Richard is a goon at first glance, but Leicht adds a riveting intensity to the role that fleshes out his more complicated sides. Hornberger ratchets up John's whininess. Finally, Jenn Mikulski's set and Fuzz Roark's lighting design take full advantage of Spotlighter's cozy ambience. It's clear that Spotlighters has gone all out on this one to celebrate the recent renovation. The effort has more than paid off.

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