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Falcon’s “Lion in Winter” Proves the Timelessness of Family Dysfunction

Review by Laurel Humes of “The Lion in Winter”: Falcon Theatre

“The Lion in Winter,” now on stage at Falcon Theatre, is surprisingly hilarious, despite this royal family’s savage catfights, death threats and sheer animosity toward one another.

The time is 1183. The King is Henry II. The Queen is Eleanor of Aquitaine, except she’s been imprisoned by Henry for 10 years for persuading their sons to rebel against him. 

Henry (Allen R. Middleton) allows Eleanor (Tracy M. Schoster) to come home for Christmas. The family gathering includes Henry and Eleanor and their three sons Richard (Gregory Mallios), Geoffrey (Jared Earland) and John (Clay Winstead). 

Just for more tension, add Henry’s current mistress, Alais (Lexi Rigsby), and Phillip, the young king of France (Dan Robertson).

“What shall we hang? The holly or each other?” Henry asks at the caustic holiday gathering.

Central to the family hostility is that each parent wants a different son to succeed Henry as king. Eleanor is promoting Richard, the oldest and already a famous soldier. Henry wants John, only 16, and naïve and weak. 

So inter-family alliances form, and then dissolve. There is scheming and strategizing. So many lies are told and so many ruses launched, that it is difficult to keep track of who is on whose side. In a laughable understatement, Eleanor says, “Well, every family has its ups and downs.”

At one point, Henry decides none of his sons are worthy and locks all of them up in a wine cellar. “The royal boys are aging with the royal port,” he proclaims.

But, just when you start to believe that none of these characters – and they were real people – is at all sympathetic, you see the pain in Eleanor as she watches Henry with his mistress. This one isn’t his first. She covers with pronouncements like: “Henry’s bed is his province. He can people it with sheep for all I care. Which, on occasion, he has done.” 

The sons complain painfully about enduring childhoods with their uncaring parents. And even after plots against him are revealed, Henry cannot bring himself to execute his sons.

Director Tara Williams has chosen to put the characters in contemporary dress. That can be jarring, considering the plot clearly revolves around 12th century royalty and events. But the decision makes the point that dissention can exist in all families, regardless of the era.

The modern costumes also help us relate to each character. We recognize the t-shirt and jeans look for teenage John, the military uniform for soldier Richard, the business suit for CEO-as-King Henry.

Falcon’s “The Lion in Winter” is witty, clever, and very well-acted by all cast members; the ensemble has no weak links.

The focus of the play, though, is on Henry and Eleanor. Middleton and Schoster revel in the roles, and they are as good a match as the characters. Middleton’s Henry is flamboyant, all swagger and bluffs. Schoster’s Eleanor may be softer spoken, but her slings and arrows always hit the mark.

“The Lion in Winter” continues through April 6 at Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth St., Newport. Tickets are available at 513-479-6783 or at http://falcontheater.net.