‘The Lion in Winter’ at Custom Made Theatre Company (****1/2)

Steven Westdahl as Henry II and Catherine “Cat” Luedtke as Eleanor of Acquitaine in James Godlman’s “The Lion In Winter.” Photo Credit: JayYamada.

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

James Goldman’s ever popular “The Lion In Winter” is a family comedy/drama masquerading as an historical costume drama. It’s characters are much larger than everyday life: The King and Queen of England, no less, their three royal sons, plus the King of France and his sister. As with many a family play, the drama revolves around the question of who is to inherit the family wealth. In this case, that would be England. All of it. And a hefty portion of France to boot.

The situation is historically accurate, but the play is not a history lesson. The drama of family alliances is as modern as can be. But by setting it in medieval times, playwright Goldman manages a neat metaphorical trick: All propertied families are petty kingdoms, and we fight for our place in the pecking  order with as much passion as if we were determining the fate of an entire people. The literal crowns which change hands on stage are the perfect metaphor for any family drama where siblings struggle for ascendancy. By making it a matter of ancient kings and princes, in a warlike time, Goldman is able to pit the family against one another with literal broadswords and armies. The result is that we see ourselves and our modern families in a property-ridden empire exploded by a funhouse mirror.

Because these characters are so much larger than life, they are able to speak more eloquently than typical families, and the witty sparring between Eleanor and Henry is one of the great delights of the play.

All of this is quite wonderful, but full of traps for the unwary director. It is too easy to make of this a costumed melodrama, full of chanting monks, overwhelming set pieces, and indulgent overacting.

Director Stuart Bousel has avoided all these pitfalls to give us a “Lion In Winter” that is fresh, funny, and moving. Working on a small stage, he moves his actors about like chess pieces. Every gesture and physical placement reveals more nuances in the changing alliances. The shifts of plot are as intriguing as a well-constructed who-done-it. Bousel does an excellent job of untangling the complex webs of deceit.

Watching the royals at their games of cat-and-mouse is wonderfully funny, thanks to Goldman’s witty dialogue, and also moving as the emotional stakes are kept high throughout.

The cast is excellent, and understand how to underplay the melodrama for maximum authenticity and laughter. The script is written so that attitudes change as rapidly as a candle flickers. Each actor polished the transitions so that they seem, indeed, to move with the speed of light. This company is on fire.

In many productions, the show is stolen by the actress playing Eleanor. Catherine Luedtke is certainly capable of stealing the show, but has kept herself carefully in check. The result is a much more successful ensemble piece than one might expect. Luedtke is wonderful, but so is everyone else. As King Henry, Steven Westdahl (who has a dramatic presence that reminds us of Orson Welles, whom he strikingly resembles) is full of jollity and sudden, frightening strength. His Henry is a man of many moods who shows them all. The three sons (Luke Brady, Kalon Thibodeaux, and Elliot Lieberman) are like a hydraheaded monster, completely believable as squabbling siblings. As the cool-headed Phillip, King of France, Will Trichon is a study in haughtiness. Caitlin Evenson is appropriately innocent but firm as his sister Alais.

This one’s a whole lot of fun.

“The Lion In Winter” continues at custom Made Theatre Company through December2, 2017. For further information, click here.


Rating:  ****1/2 (For an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)


“The Lion in Winter” by James Goldman, produced by the Custom Made Theatre Company. Direcgor: Stuart Bousel. Scenic Designer: Sarah Phykitt. Costume Designer: Brooke Jennings. Properties Designer: Seth Boeckman. Fight choreographer: Kyle McReddie.


Henry II: Steven Westdahl. Alais: Catlin Evenson. John: Luke Brady. Geoffrey: Kalon Thibodeaux. Richard: Elliot Lieberman. Eleanor: Catherine “Cat” Luedtke. Phillip: Will Trichon. 

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