“Try; you can hear the thinking through the walls,” King Henry II says in the solid-as-a-rock Palm Beach Dramaworks production of “The Lion in Winter” playing through Jan. 5 in West Palm Beach.
We almost feel that we can. For this 1966 play by James Goldman (and famously made into a 1968 film with Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole) shows a medieval monarch surrounded by his conniving family during Christmas in 1183.
With steely direction by William Hayes, the cast keeps the play a real live wire, with the tension sparking and vibrating for 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
The holidays for the royal Plantagenet family, who ruled England in the late 12th century, are like a deadly chess game, but not one of those slow and thoughtful games. No, they’re more like fast chess with sudden death traps … not only for the king and queen, but for the three princes who are circling the throne like wolverines.
“There’s Geoffrey, humming treachery,” says Henry (played by C. David Johnson). “And Richard, growling out for gore. And Eleanor, she’s thinking heavy thoughts like molten lead and marble slabs.”
Ah, Eleanor of Aquitane. She’s the other end of this seesaw for power that, on one level, is between a husband and his wife.
Released for Christmas after being jailed for inciting rebellion against Henry, Eleanor (played by Tod Randolph) is determined to give their warrior son, Richard (Chris Crawford), the crown. Henry is determined that the youngest son, petulant and bungling John (Justin Baldwin), should reign.
Henry wants to marry off his mistress, Alais Capet (Katherine Amadeo), to John, all under the watchful eye of her sly half-brother Philip Capet (Pierre Tannous), who happens to also be the king of France. Both parents tend to ignore the middle child, Geoffrey II (Cliff Burgess), a slippery and manipulative foe if ever there was one.
And there you have it. This fictional take on historical figures — Richard became the Lionhearted; Geoffrey’s marriage gained the family Brittany; John signed the Magna Carta and was the villain in Robin Hood — glistens with brilliance at times, then turns darkly ominous at others.
The treachery feels real, as the cast breathes hot breath into the lines as well as, and this is just as important, brandished the script’s briny humor with the quick flash of a dagger unsheathed. Getting this language just right is everything, and the actors excel, not only at getting the rhythm and the tone right, but the dialect, too. The set and costume designs are peerless.
No, this is not your usual Christmas play. After a particularly vicious and bruising battle in which Eleanor confirms the rumor that she slept with Henry’s father, she sighs, leans back and asks herself, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
That’s not exactly “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “The Nutcracker.” But then again, those stories don’t show how how words can spark wars, and how we are all pawns of the political elite.
IF YOU GO:
"The Lion in Winter"
Where: The Don and Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach
Contact: 561-514-4042 or PalmBeachDramaworks.org.