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Photograph by R.R. Jones
MATE'S FOR STRIFE: Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kandis Chappell) and King Henry (Marco Barricelli) duke it out over old grievances and future fortunes in the Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of 'The Lion in Winter.'

Animal Magnetism

'The Lion in Winter' gives a thundering start to another season of Shakespeare Santa Cruz

By Christina Waters

SUMPTUOUSLY SPARE, full of sound and fury, the 29th Shakespeare Santa Cruz season's opening production of The Lion in Winter is replete with all that makes live theater worth its weight in aged cognac. Led by Marco Barricelli's robust Henry, the outstanding cast powers its way through a bracing, violent and witty exercise in domestic politics.

In the rustic 12th-century French castle of Henry II's court, the time is Christmas and Henry has allowed his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kandis Chappell) out of prison for the holidays. Also home for Christmas are the royal sons John (Dylan Saunders), Richard the Lionheart (John Pasha) and Geoffrey (Aaron Blakely), as well as Henry's young mistress Alais (Mairin Lee) and her brother Philip, the king of France (Adam Yazbeck). Everyone has an agenda. Philip wants his sister to become the next queen of England. The three greedy brothers each want to be Henry's heir. Henry wants Eleanor's Aquitaine, and Eleanor wants Henry. However thickly woven the strands of royal intrigue in James Goldman's script, the action is clear and razor-edged thanks to a vigorous cast and dynamic pacing.

Visceral music by Bonfire Madigan Shive and sound design by Gregory Scharpen enhance the royal brocades and leathers of B. Modern's period costuming. Kandis Chappell makes a handsome, acid-tongued Eleanor, wielding her authoritative voice like honey and nitroglycerin. Barricelli delivers a resounding portrayal of the domineering king defiant in his desire to posse ss both Alais and Aquitaine. "I don't plan to give up anything," snarls Henry as his three sons begin their takeover plot in earnest. The interwoven subplot finds the aging king determined to keep Alais, whom he calls "an old man's last attachment," but not at the expense of Aquitaine, the territory Eleanor continues to deny him.

Much of Lion works as eloquent sitcom, with one-liners flying fast as daggers. The domestic pas de deux is gloweringly funny—do they really still love each other? Or do they simply act like it, all the better to inflict deeper wounds? The play bursts with open interfamilial warfare, knives drawn and teeth bared. Strands of Medea, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and great helpings of Tennessee Williams glimmer and bite through the play's crafty rhetoric. But the stellar performances by Barricelli and Chappell as the royal combatants are matched tooth and nail by the ensemble of male actors, notably Yazbeck as a particularly brazen 12th-century hottie.

Henry's sons—self-serving narcissists full of brooding resentment toward parents who neglected them, yet whom they adore—each lust for supremacy. The actors have etched distinctive physical as well as vocal identities to encode John's whining, Geoffrey's duplicity and Richard's sheer steely nerve. As the alpha son Richard, John Pasha is incandescent. Using his unflinching eye contact and vocal power to match Barricelli bellow for bellow, taunt for taunt, Pasha applies spine-tingling emotional torque to his bitterly vengeful character. There's plenty of venom and brilliance to go around.

Powering all the deft and cunning conspiracy is Richard E.T. White's adroit stage direction. Barricelli commands without dominating either the stage or the play. Reminiscent of another stage lion, Burt Lancaster, Barricelli uses his body and voice to ignite Henry's larger-than-life hunger for everything—England, life, more years, more love, and perhaps, more Eleanor. Magnificent in a smoldering red velvet gown, Chappell ignites the second act as she and Henry duel and argue—gloriously—over who has lost the most over their many years together. "You don't know what nothing is," Henry spits at Eleanor as they compare psychological damage.

A brisk evening of high-stakes theater, The Lion in Winter is a robust and occasionally romantic dissection of the many conflicting shapes and textures of love. Set in the past, the play illuminates an eternal present. And the ending is perfection.

THE LION IN WINTER runs through Aug. 29 in the Mainstage Theater, UCSC, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. Tickets $15–$47 at or 831.459.2159.

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