The Lion in Winter roars with humor at Custom Made Theatre

Steven Westdahl as Henry and Catherine “Cat” Luedtke as Eleanor in “The Lion in Winter” at Custom Made Theatre

The Lion in Winter: Drama by James Goldman. Directed by Stuart Bousel. Custom Made Theatre Company, Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter St. (at Powell) in San Francisco, CA. (415) 798-2682, Through December 2, 2017

The Lion in Winter roars with humor at Custom Made Theatre Rating: ★★★★☆1/2 EXTENDED TO DECEMBER 9

If you are looking for a fun night at the theater with a dollop of historical fiction that is a solid dysfunctional family drama, get thee hence to Custom Made’s intimate venue and almost share the attractive stage set (Sarah Phykitt) with the actors. But beware, fratricide is in the air. Luckily the old chestnut axiom “if a weapon appears in the first act it will be used in the second” does not hold true. Of course, because they do not appear until the second act!

Those weapons are glistening knives since the time of the play is the winter of 1183 and the place is King Henry II’s (Steven Westdahl) castle in France. It is the Christmas Holiday and he has gathered his family around him and includes his young mistress princess Alais (Caitlin Evenson) daughter of King Louie VII for non-altruistic reasons.

Family members include Richard’s three sons who each seek to inherit the throne. The oldest and sturdiest is Richard (Eliot Lieberman) the Lion Hearted. Middle son Geoffrey IV (Kalon Thibodeaux) the most cunning and devious has set himself as the protector of the youngest John (Luke Brady) hoping to become chancellor if (and it is a big if) John is the successor to Henry.  Last and most important is Eleanor of Aquitaine (Catherine “Cat” Luedtke) wife to Henry and Queen of England and mother to the boys. She has been under house arrest for raising an army to dethrone Henry and losing. With the family together the bickering and back stabbing begins.

Geoffrey has set his course to be the titular ruler, if not King, of England. Eleanor champions Richard and Henry has decided on the immature, ineffectual John. The battle lines are drawn and Stephen Westdahl gives a superb performance using his stentorian voice and strutting presence to rule the stage. That is until Eleanor arrives and holds her own in a relatively quiet manner even when Henry shouts, “When I bellow why do you not bellow back?” It is not her nature and “Cat” Luedtke as Eleanor is a perfect match for him. She has the most significant single line that turns a potential historical drama into a modern typification of family drama: “Every family has its ups and downs.”

Eliot Lieberman gives a dominating but one dimensional patina as Richard. Luke Brady has the unenviable role as John who must give emphasis to the fact that his whining and immaturity are not suitable for the succession to King. Kalon Thibodeaux’s performance is beautifully underplayed and his machinations as Geoffrey are frightening.  Diminutive Caitlin Everson is perfect for role as the young mistress and pawn in the family free-for-all.  The performances by Steven Westdahl and Catherine “Cat” Luedtke alone are worth a visit.

Director Stuart Bousel adroitly paces this multiple scene historical comedy-drama keeping the infighting balanced when needed and allowing individuals to take center stage. The miniscule stage is beautifully laid out (Sarah Phykitt) with a central handsome medieval décor that morphs into individual rooms with minimal movement of props. This is enhanced by semi-medieval costumes (Brooke Jennings).  Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission and is highly recommended.

CAST: Luke Brady as John,the youngest son; Caitlin Evenson as Alais, a French Princess; Elliot Lieberman as Richard Lionheart, the oldest son; Cat Luedtke* as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife; Kalon Thibedeaux as Geoffrey, the middle son; Will Trichon as Philip, King of France; Steven Westdahl as Henry II, King of England.

CREATIVE STAFF: Seth Boeckman (Properties), Brooke Jennings (Costumes), Cat Knight (Stage Manager), Sarah Phykitt (Scenic), Ryan Lee Short (Sound), Cat Knight (Stage Manager).

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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