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Family reunion of dirty rotten scoundrels

Scheming, betrayal and manipulation are all part of the family Christmas festivities at the palace of England's King Henry II in Camelot Theatre's darkly witty and fast-paced production of “The Lion in Winter.” While not entirely true to history, the play is based on real historical figures and offers a glimpse into the power plays and personal drama of royal court life in 1183 A.D.

In James Goldman's award-winning 1966 play, King Henry, played by Don Matthews, has briefly released his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, played by Livia Genise, from her decade-long imprisonment to attend a holiday family reunion at his castle at Chinon. Eleanor wants her freedom and power back.

Their three sons, fierce Richard Lionheart (Tyler Ward); cold-blooded, manipulative Geoffrey (Nathan Monks); and the dimwitted and simpering John (Max Gutfreund), all want to be king. Added to the mix are the young and pompous King Philip of France (Rigo Jimenez), who seeks revenge, and his lovestruck sister Alais (Holly Nienhaus), who was raised by Eleanor in the castle since age 7.

The French princess was promised to one of Henry's sons, but has become the King's mistress. It's no surprise when the kids and parents begin to backstab one another with abandon. As Eleanor quips with biting understatement, “What family doesn't have its ups and downs?” 

Directed by Roy Von Rains, Jr., the production is imbued with a lyrical quality by dance interludes beautifully choreographed by Brianna Gowland and Isabeau Kennedy. The dancers, Jem Burke, Keely McLean, and Erny Rosales, are a highlight of the show. Their fluid scene changes provide welcome respites between the bouts of greed and spite duked out by the main characters. The simple but versatile set, a grim castle designed by Dan Zastoupil, offers a suitably cheerless backdrop. 

Matthews' Henry is a weary and conflicted king determined to control the future of his kingdom long after he is gone, and caught between the intellectual knowledge that he is aging and his still youthful passions. Matthews has a great, smooth voice, and he gives a subtle performance in a show that is anything but.

Genise is delightfully malicious as the scheming and sharp-tongued Eleanor. Eleanor has some of the funniest lines in the show, and the delight Genise takes in delivering those lines is evident. The two leads are well balanced, neither taking it all too seriously and both offering some of the more human moments in the play, such as Eleanor's wordless pain when she sees Henry kissing his young mistress or Henry's meltdown after discovering all three of his sons plotting against him. The supporting characters turn in solid performances as well.

The Lion in Winter moves quickly, with plenty of twists and snappy exchanges, but the play is nearly 2-1/2 hours long and the relentless squabbling gets tiresome near the end. With the exception of Nienhaus' Alais, who evolves from sweet and starry-eyed girl to scheming queen-to-be, the characters don't grow or change during the story. While the audience may learn a bit more about them, they become even less likeable as the story unfolds. Ultimately, the end is dissatisfying, with no clear resolution.

Despite the darkness of the story, the play is a good showcase of the comic talents of the Camelot performers. The production is consistently entertaining and quite funny at times. Some of the best moments are found in verbal sparring between Henry and Eleanor, whose love of power rivals their twisted but true love for each other. 

“The Lion in Winter” runs through Nov. 9. Performances begin at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. A pay-what-you-can performance starts at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 22. Regular tickets cost $25 ($23 for students and seniors).

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.