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A troublesome trio undermines a dynamic duo in CAT's "The Lion in Winter."

A Wintry Mix

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What would happen if the Three Stooges wandered into a production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" The result might be something like the Chamberlayne Actors Theatre's take on "The Lion in Winter." The Stooges here are the three sons of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, two dynasts of the 12th century whose real-life squabbles are fictionalized in playwright James Goldman's 1966 comic drama. As written, the "The Lion in Winter" is already an uneasy mix of jaunty banter and vicious double-dealing. But director H. Lynn Smith has further muddied these waters by flattening the three princes into one-dimensional cutouts instead of coaxing them into fully realized characters. In contrast, John Ambrose and Mary Carol Kelly (as Henry and Eleanor) find many layers of spite and sensitivity in their repartee, going at each other with the full-bodied zeal of "Virginia Woolf's" George and Martha. When these two vastly different approaches come together, the clash isn't a train wreck, but it is a bit disconcerting. While I would have liked to sit back and appreciate the surprisingly nimble acting of Ambrose and Kelly, those damned sons kept popping up and spoiling things. The three of them are constantly jockeying for favor, each hoping to be named successor to the throne. John (Jason Keeley) is Henry's favorite, but he's such a dimwitted simp, it's impossible to tell why. Richard Lionheart (Buddie Bishop) is Eleanor's choice, but he is so fiercely forthright that you want to tickle him under the chin just to wipe the perpetual snarl from his face. That leaves Geoffrey (Jason Amsler), the smart and sarcastic son who nobody likes and whose only chance at the throne requires an alliance with Philip, the King of France (Christopher Carter). The actors playing these brothers all do an adequate job projecting one prominent personality trait. But none seems able to modulate his tone, thus robbing these characters of even the scant depth the playwright gave them. "Lion's" plots and counterplots play out in consistently clever ways, but with a family as nasty as this, there's no one to root for. The only truly sympathetic character is Henry's mistress, Alais (portrayed with believable innocence by Mindy Quirk), but she is also the one who seems destined to get the rawest deal of them all. Just about everybody gets double-crossed at least once, and though most of the sparring is verbal, swords and daggers do appear before the final curtain. And you thought you had a dysfunctional family … CAT has tried to dress up this production, but it's not easy to furnish a castle on a budget. Set designer Lin Heath does some clever work with a background panel that can be manipulated from a wall into a four-poster bed. Otherwise, the production's design is somewhat spare. When Henry launches into a beautiful/tragic soliloquy that begins, "The sky is pocked with stars…," I want to see those stars. Of course, even more than stars, this is a production that needs worthy princes to complement a stellar King and

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