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From left, Richard Baird, Kyle Sorrell, Jason Maddy, Alexandra Grossi, Mark Pinter, Kyle Roche, Kandis Chappell star in the North Coast Repertory Theatre’s staging of “The Lion in Winter.” Photo courtesy of Aaron Rumley
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The North Coast Rep’s staging of ‘Lion’ roars

SOLANA BEACH — Is history written by the great?  By individuals whose singular brilliance outshines everyone else’s?  Or is the historical timeline the public byproduct of private intrigue and ulterior appetites?

This is one of the questions asked by James Goldman’s 1966 play “The Lion in Winter,” which has been given new claws and teeth by The North Coast Repertory Theatre.

Set on a Christmas Day in England in 1183, the story concerns King Henry II, whose sole preoccupation (or so it would seem) is to preserve the unity of his kingdom beyond his death.  Whether he’s motivated by hubris or obsession is hard to say; his attitude so cavalier, one questions whether nothing is truly sacred to him.   Out of his remaining three sons — Richard, Geoffrey, and John — he has chosen John, the youngest, and seemingly least qualified, to succeed himself as king.

Complicating the matter is Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s indomitable wife, whom he had imprisoned ten years prior, for trying to usurp him.   On this Christmas day, Eleanor — along with their three sons — have been summoned to Chinon, France, so that Henry might settle the matter of his successor once and for all.   Eleanor, of course, won’t stand to hear any other name than Richard’s from her estranged husband’s lips, and this is where the central conflict lies.

Those familiar with the play know what unfolds is a series of plotting and counter-plotting, as characters backbite, manipulate, slander, and beguile each other to obtain their heart’s desire — with, of course, national implications beyond the stony confines of the court.

With the intimate environment amplifying Goldman’s delicious dialogue, the North Coast Repertory stage lends itself perfectly to the material.  The actors know they’re trading in precious gems, and do their best to ensure each line retains its dazzle.  Audience members are left feeling they have been invited to a private dinner party, where family have forgotten their decorum, and are airing dirty laundry.  The difference?   Within the safety of the theater, it’s okay to laugh out loud.

From left, Jason Maddy, Kyle Roche and Richard Baird star in "The Lion in Winter." Photo courtesy of Aaron Rumley

Mark Pinter as Henry, might be channeling the late Phil Hartman, as he spends most of the time somewhere between grinning and grimacing.  His Henry seems to be stifling delight in watching his family fight over his scraps.  Smartly so, Pinter has defined Henry by his impulses rather than his heart — you don’t believe a word the king says.

Pinter’s medium grey is calculated to allow sympathies to lie with the queen.  As Eleanor, Kandis Chappell is a revelation.   Part Norma Desmond, part Blanche DuBois, Chappell plays Eleanor as a misunderstood monster, a woman in whose tone and manner is the pain of being scorned.  Whereas Henry’s contrivances might be out of jest or sheer boredom, Eleanor’s antics are a desperate plea for her husband’s attention.

Even though Chappell steals the show, all of the acting is stellar.  Richard Baird is impressively gloomy and stalwart as Richard; Alexandra Grossi is delightful as the king’s mistress Alais; with noteworthy support by Jason Maddy as the forgotten Geoffrey, Kyle Roche as the puerile John, and Kyle Sorrell as methodically aloof Phillip.

As a unit, the cast functions wonderfully, thanks in large part to the direction of Andrew Barnicle.  His oversight has helped the ensemble to perform as a well-oiled machine.  Allowing the play to breeze through a full spectrum of emotion, Barnicle has assembled players the way an artist might choose his paints — just the right combination of wavelengths to paint a picture with a broad dynamic range.  Savoring black humor, his take answers the age-old question: “What if English nobility were only one gene removed from Al and Peg Bundy?”

With memorable costume design by Renetta Lloyd, a sensational use of space by John Finkbiner (Scenic Artist), creative lighting by Jason Bieber, and mood-setting sound provided by Chris Luessmann, “The Lion in Winter” will make you laugh … even as you grind your teeth.

The show has been extended to run through Feb. 5.

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