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Camelot presents 'The Lion in Winter'

“The Lion in Winter,” James Goldman’s award-winning play about King Henry II of England and his formidable wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is history served up as part “Game of Thrones” and part reality show.

When Henry of Anjou and Eleanor of Aquitaine married in 1152, he was 19, the ruler of northwestern France and soon to become king of England. Eleanor was 30 and a former Queen of France who had led the Second Crusade with her husband, Louis VII. Although that marriage had been annulled, she still controlled her pre-marriage inheritance — all of southwestern France. Henry's and Eleanor’s turbulent marriage produced five sons and three daughters — among them two kings of England — and unending family battles to secure the English crown.

Eleanor even conspired with her eldest son to overthrow Henry. When the revolt failed, Henry imprisoned her for 16 years, allowing her to come to court only for the occasional Christmas celebration.

The play is set during one of those Christmas celebrations as Henry, Eleanor and three of their sons — Richard, Geoffrey and John — wittily clash over love, power and inheritance.

Camelot Theatre's production of "The Lion in Winter" features Don Matthews as Henry II, Livia Genise as Eleanor, Tyler Ward as Richard, Nathan Monks as Geoffrey and Max Gutfreund as John. Rigo Jimenez is King Phillip of France and Holly Nienhaus is Alais, Henry’s young mistress. Roy Von Rains, Jr. directs.

“People don’t realize that ‘The Lion in Winter’ is subtitled ‘a comedy in two acts,’ ” says Genise, also Camelot's artistic director. “The play is very, very funny. It’s an intellectual game between Henry and Eleanor. There’s real sexual chemistry there, as well.”

“The Lion in Winter” previews with a fundraiser for The Amigo Club at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15. Tickets cost $25. A low-priced preview is at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16. Tickets cost $12. A pay-what-you-can performance is at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 22. Other performances are set for 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 9. Tickets cost $25, $23 for students and seniors.

Rains describes “The Lion in Winter” as “an anti-fairy-tale.” He says he wanted to go against the mood of the play and deliberately take a fairy tale approach to telling the story.

“I was looking for an ethereal way to start and end the show,” Rains says. “I thought of curtains opening and closing, like the pages of a book.”

He created these magical curtains using an “aerial silk” dance performance onstage, choreographed by Isabeau Kennedy. Scene changes will be accompanied by additional music and dance, choreographed by assistant director Brianna Gowland.

Rains found the necessary rigging and the silk fabric for the aerial work online. He cast two dancers and gymnasts from Camelot’s Conservatory program, Keely McLean and Jem Burke, for the aerial dance. Dancer Erny Rosales joins them for the between-the-scene musical numbers.

“I wanted a graceful, fluid symmetry for the aerial work and the dance,” says Rains. “I remembered these two young women from their Conservatory productions and I knew they would be incredible.”

“The Lion in Winter” opened on Broadway in 1966 and won a Tony Award for best actress for Rosemary Harris as Eleanor. Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn starred in the 1968 film version. Hepburn won an Academy Award for best actress and playwright Goldman won for best screenplay.

Rains says in his director’s notes that he has been caught up by the brilliance of the dialogue and the passion of “The Lion in Winter.”

“I sometimes feel as if I have been given the opportunity to eavesdrop on history,” he says.

“The story is beautifully written and absolutely majestic," Genise adds. "It is the ultimate chess match.”

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

Livia Genise stars as Eleanore of Aquitaine and Don Matthews as King Henry II in Camelot Theatre's production of 'The Lion in Winter.' Photo courtesy of Steve Sutfin