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Tucson Weekly Winter Wrangle

Millennium Theatre Company's "Lion In Winter" is a crafty choice for seasonal entertainment.

By Margaret Regan

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  FRANCESCA JARVIS is easily the best thing about Millennium Theatre Company's holiday production of The Lion in Winter.

One of Tucson's finest actresses, Jarvis takes the part of the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine in this historical comedy/drama. She's a queen who's been locked up for the last 10 years, so her husband the king, Henry II, can more easily indulge his political machinations and love affairs. Oh, he does let her out on special occasions--such as Christmas--ostensibly to keep up appearances before the people. Mostly, though, he seems to do it so this fierce old couple can have the pleasure of locking horns once again.

Jarvis gives him that pleasure and more. Eleanor connives and twists at every turn of the royal drama, and even the audience can never entirely figure out whether she's the loving wife and mother she claims to be, or the cold self-serving politician her family believes her to be. As her calculating consort, Lee Stubbs nearly matches the capable Jarvis. He has a fierce bellow and a wonderfully evil smile that betrays Henry's constant Machiavellian scheming.

The play reunites Henry and Eleanor at Christmas 1183 so they can argue over which of their three misanthropic sons should succeed to the throne (this is before the days of primogeniture). Then there's also the little matter of Henry's devotion to the young princess Alais of France, with whom he just may want to generate even more sons. All this provides room for great and witty battles aplenty.

"I don't like our children very much," Eleanor declares to Henry at one point.

Unfortunately, the lead actors are as ill-served by their fellow cast members as the old queen and king apparently were by their heirs. The three actors taking the parts of the sons each seem to have concentrated on a single quality and stuck to it: Robert Gleeman is cold as the warrior Richard, the eldest. Scott Cummings is bitter as the overlooked middle son, Geoffrey; and Sean Zackson prowls around like a gorilla as the youngest and dumbest son, John.

Nevertheless, the script for this 30-year-old play by James Goldman is deliciously literate. The play is a nice, edgy choice for the Christmas season, in contrast to the more-expected productions of A Christmas Carol running elsewhere in town. The playwright does occasionally dip into contemporary sentiments for comic effect. Such lines as "Well, it's 1183, we're barbarians," are funny but tend to disrupt the play's intensity.

And one more thing: This is a play truly set in winter, in a marvelously designed faux stone castle created by director John Gunn. But while the characters have the advantage of partaking in steamed wine over and over to ward off those chilly medieval drafts, the hapless audience in the unheated theatre has no such luck. Bring a blanket.

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