ST. PETERSBURG — It’s not unusual for a holiday story to explore dark themes. A Christmas Carol isn’t especially cheery. But for all its scheming, vengeance and murderous plans, The Lion in Winter at Freefall Theatre takes dark to medieval proportions. It’s also very witty.
Set in 1183, King Henry II of England is at his castle in Chinon, France. It’s Christmastime, and in honor of the holiday, he’s freeing his wife, Eleanor, out of her prison for a short spell. Henry is in love with Alais Capet, younger sister of the young French king, Philip, to whom he paid a dowry for Alais many years ago. Philip has come to see the dowry out so Henry is considering which one of his sons will receive the crown, and Alais. His choices are the eldest, Richard Lionheart, a confident and successful soldier, the calculating Geoffrey, who has serious middle child syndrome, and John, the whiny youngest brother who is described as pimply and smelling of compost.
It should be noted that although these are real people, this is not a historical play. Thankfully.
When Eleanor and Henry disagree about which son should get the crown, the entire family devolves into chaos, loyalties are questioned, manipulations are launched and more imprisonment occurs.
Sounds brutal, but thanks to quick-witted dialogue, effective acting and solid direction by Chris Crawford, it’s very entertaining. As King Henry and Eleanor, Joe D. Lauck and Stephanie Dunnam exude the chemistry and sexual tension of a couple who love to hate each other. They deliver some of the play’s best lines, throwing loquacious barbs at each other and the rest of the family. As Alais, Alicia Thomas nails her woeful pining for Henry, edged by the confusing emotion of her attachment to Eleanor.
As Richard Lionheart, Eric Brandon Davis struts around with a swagger, but he’s seething underneath. Geoffrey (Joseph Michael-Kenneth) is also a ticking time bomb. When they rage, it’s electric. Robert “Spence” Gabriel plays John as the annoying younger brother, using physical comedy to garner some laughs. While they all beat their chests and roar, each shows vulnerability.
As King Philip, Rob Glauz is a formidable opponent to Henry, matching his quick dialogue and holding his own as a royal. He has become embroiled in the family’s war.
Freefall’s intimate setting would seem to present a challenge for this production, since it’s set in different rooms of a castle. But Tom Hansen’s set design is inventive and clever. The “stage” intersects the theater, separating the audience on either side. Long, arched wooden structures hang at various lengths, candles glowing on the tops, boughs of holly wrapped around some. When it’s time for a set change, the suspended arches come down and the actors who play the sons and Thomas move them around, creating tables and other furniture. While they do this, they’re singing medieval Christmas carols.
They end the play that way, too, and after all the threats, brutality and heartbreak, the line they end with reminds us of the absurdity of it all.
“With tidings of comfort and joy.”
IF YOU GO
The Lion in Winter runs through Dec. 22. $25-$50. Freefall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 498-5205. For showtimes, visit freefalltheatre.com.