Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

The Lion in Winter
freeFall Theatre
William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Silent Sky


(front) Robert Spence Gabriel, Stephanie Dunnam,
Joe D. Lauck; (rear) Eric Brandon Davis,
Joseph Michael-Kenneth, Alicia Thomas,
and Rob Glauz

Photo by The Photo Ninja
The Christmas offering at freeFall Theatre is The Lion in Winter by James Goldman. If that seems an odd choice, since the play is hardly filled with family harmony and love for all, the first act is set at Christmastime. The play was hardly a big success in its 1963 Broadway outing, but it did spawn a far more honored film starring Katharine Hepburn in one of her four Oscar-winning performances and Peter O'Toole, who was nominated but didn't win.

The Lion in Winter is the story of Henry II of England and his estranged queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. They had four sons, one deceased, and each had a choice to inherit the throne. Over two ferocious acts, a battle royal (literally) takes place.

freeFall's exciting production returns me to the period when this theater had a distinctive style, uniquely its own. Costumes by Eric Davis are put together out of incongruous materials, set design by Tom Hansen is rarely historical or necessarily accurate but comes together in brilliant blazes of theatricality, permeated by an extraordinary use of space aided by the black box theater's versatility, able to be configured in multiple ways. The Lion in Winter is performed with the audience seated on both sides of a rectangular playing area. Associate Artistic Director Chris Crawford has blocked the scenes brilliantly and variously.

Leading the across the board brilliant cast is Joe D. Lauck as Henry II. He has past appearances at freeFall, but I managed to miss all of them, which will not happen going forward. The Lion in Winter is sort of King Lear inside out, and this is one of the greatest roles for a male actor of a certain age. Mr. Lauck fills it in all of its many layers: master manipulator, king worried about his legacy, lover, father. Stephanie Dunnam as Eleanor is maternal, manipulative, driven by desire for power, but a prisoner in her castle because of the king's displeasure. Hers is an equally thrilling assumption. The scenes between Henry and Eleanor simple crackle with electricity.

Eric Brandon Davis is ferocious as eldest son Richard (The Lionheart). After seeing Davis in back to back superlative acting performances, I find myself wondering if onstage isn't where he belongs, then my mind wanders to several of his incisive directing assignments, and I am left with the realization that his is a multifaceted talent, one not easily pigeonholed. Robert Spence Gabriel as John, Richard's most serious rival for the throne, is solid, but left me feeling the character doesn't have the emotional or physical stamina to maintain it, should it become his. Joseph Michael-Kenneth as Geoffrey, neither of his parents' choice to ascend, is very fine playing the odds-out brother who has to fight harder for himself.

Robert Glauz is French King Philip Capet, the son of a weakish king, more of a deal-maker than a warrior or strong leader. The son spent much of his time on the throne trying to convince his enemies that he was much more of a force to be reckoned with, but in the end never rose to greatness. Aided by Goldman's fine writing, Glauz conveys much of this. Alicia Thomas rounds out the cast as Philip's half sister, Henry's lover, Alais.

freeFall's exceptional version of The Lion in Winter keeps the audience on the edge of its seats, an ongoing power play in antiquity.

The Lion in Winter, through December 22, 2019, at freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg FL. For tickets and performance information, visit www.freefalltheatre.com.

Cast (in order of appearance):
Henry II: Joe Lauck*
Eleanor: Stephanie Dunnam*
Richard Lionheart: Eric Brandon Davis*
Geoffrey: Joseph Michael-Kenneth
John: Robert Spence Gabriel
Alais Capet: Alicia Thomas*
Philip Capet: Rob Glauz*

*=Member of Actors' Equity Association


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