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Review: Funny 'Lion in Winter' roars to life at Camelot Theatre

It's hard to beat dysfunctional families for dramatic fodder, as playwrights from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Eugene O'Neill have known. In James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter," which first hit Broadway in 1968, our quarrelsome clan is the Plantagenets, whose long grip on the throne of England began in the Middle Ages.

The device Goldman used to bring his scheming royals together for our amusement is King Henry II’s Christmas party at his castle at Chinon, France, a vast swath of which was ruled by the English king, in 1183 (an event that, like many of the episodes in Shakespeare's histories, never happened).

In the breezy production of the play that opened Friday at Camelot Theatre, the old bull of a king, aging but still shrewd Henry (Don Matthews), says to his young, French princess of a mistress, Alais (Holly Nienhaus), “Come, let’s go downstairs and meet the family.’’

That would be the formidable Queen Eleanor (Livia Genise), whom Henry has let out of the slammer for the holidays after imprisoning her for a decade for her part in a previous plot against his rule, and Henry's three backstabbing sons, each of whom is more repellent that the last.

There's Henry's favorite, angry, pimply, runt-of-the-litter John (Max Gutfreund). There's Eleanor's choice, eldest son Richard (Tyler Ward), a warrior. And there's middle son Geoffrey (Nathan Monks), an embittered schemer.

Add to the mix the green but sly 18-year-old king of France, Philip (Rigo Jimenez), who is Alais' brother, and the number of vectors for plots and counter-plots becomes dizzying. The formula is a familiar one: Wind these vipers up and watch them go at each other.

What makes "Lion" is Goldman's strategy of telling a story in which nothing much happens with enough wit that audiences willingly go along for the ride. The play is essentially a drawing room comedy transplanted from Victorian to medieval England. Richard III meets Oscar Wilde.

Camelot's production, directed by Roy Von Rains, Jr., gleefully contrasts a light-hearted playing style with the epic stakes of the Plantagenets' internecine warfare. After all, as the quips fly, what's at stake is not the usual trivia of the comedy of manners but which son will inherit Henry's kingdom. Oh, and who will marry his mistress (he's promised her to Richard and promised Alais she can stay with him). And what will become of Aquitaine.

Laughs are frequent, in an almost sit-com, Black Adder sort of style. As Eleanor of Aquitain surveys a landscape of treason, murder and what was then sodomy (Richard the Lionhearted, played with exuberant bravado by Tyler Ward, is gay — in the 12th century), she quips, "Well, what family doesn't have its ups and downs?"

The actors get delicious mileage out of such lines, which are sprinkled throughout the play: "I'm vilifying you, mother. For God's sake, pay attention." "Hush, dear, mother's fighting." And so on.

Matthews' mercurial Henry is a still-vital old lion, consumed with worry about what will happen to his empire after his death. With a gleam in his eye, he relies on his wits and his will to counter the calculating plots of Eleanor and Geoffrey.

Eleanor is a role made for Genise, who endows the fallen queen with a sunny disposition, a wry wit and in the end a hint of something more complex. She loathes her sons but doesn't want them harmed.

The sons are flat characters, with each representing one chief characteristic. The only character with human-scale emotions is Alais, a pawn out of her depth in the larger struggle.

Paul Jones's lights bathe Don Zastoupil's castle set in moody colors, and choreographer Brianna Gowland's dancers add an air of mystery and silently move props around between scenes.

The playing is broad throughout. There is a lot of rather cartoonish shouting, including some lines that could have been delivered effectively with an icy calm. There are a lot of swords and knives.

The history play seeks to persuade us that we can see ourselves and the world we know mirrored in the world of the play (hey, they're just like us!). As Henry and Eleanor in turn court each of their sons, and the plots are hatched, it becomes difficult or impossible for each character to know which of the others is telling the truth.

It also becomes impossible for us, and that's probably a secret of the play's ongoing appeal. In the end, "The Lion in Winter" leaves things hanging. It won't make you forget "Henry IV Part One," but you'll have a good time.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.