It's been a good year for Bay Area theater overall, with some stellar productions like SHN's Anything Goes, Black Watch from A.C.T. and the National Theater of Scotland, and No Man's Land at Berkeley Rep. The Rep is closing out the year, as they have the past two years, with a moving and original new production from England's Kneehigh Theatre, Tristan & Yseult.
The piece, like their previous Bay Area outings Brief Encounter and The Wild Bride, is a kind of mashup of several texts along with music, movement, contemporary references, and dance. It features the return of Polish actress Patrycja Kujawska (The Wild Bride) playing the title role of Yseult, and the talented Andrew Durand in role of Tristan, along with a terrific ensemble that includes Carly Bawden (playing a role dubbed Lady With the White Hands whose singing voice throughout the show is downright magical), and the hilarious Craig Johnson who spends part of the show in drag as Yseult's handmaid, Miss Brangian.
This Tristan & Yseult makes use of Wagner's opera, Tristan Und Isolde, as well as older versions of the story (it dates back at least to the 12th Century), playing Wagner's music alongside a selection of mid-20th-century love ballads and lounge music from the 1960s. Much of the music throughout the show is played live, in fact, by a small band perched above the stage under a neon sign that reads "The Club of the Unloved."
As the couple at the center of this seminal Western love fable, Kujawska and Durand are well matched and display palpable chemistry, especially in the dramatically staged "hookup" scene of the first act in which they clutch each other and soar, via some hand straps and pulleys, and make out in mid-air above the stage. And it's in moments like that one, and dozens of others, that we see the genius of Kneehigh director Emma Rice at her best, devising visually arresting and emotionally evocative images through dynamic, experimental staging, not to mention occasional acrobatics.
Rice draws the audience into the action, too, during Yseult's wedding to King Mark (Mike Shepard), with a fun bit of audience participation involving balloons, but we won't ruin the surprise.
Also brilliant is the use of a tragi-comical chorus of frumpy, high-voiced, knit-hooded, bespectacled bird watchers in windbreakers (played by members of the ensemble in what amounts to a great disguise), dubbed The Unloved. Rice uses them throughout the play both to frame the drama, and to do the physical work of hoisting other actors via pulleys, and carrying set pieces on and off stage. "We are the unloved," they announce, sighingly. "We long to be kicked out of this club,[we're paraphrasing] but to enter that other, more exclusive club is impossible for some." They come to foreshadow the dramatic end of the play, and their shrugging presence provides the wistful, stalwart, unexceptional human core of the piece, which ultimately is about the mystery of mutual passion, and why so many people end up losing out to it, or never finding it at all.
This is a modern production in every way despite the stilted, semi-Shakespearean style to the dialogue, and it's impossible not to laugh, or be moved by it, sometimes in quick succession. Originally conceived as an outdoor piece performed in Cornwall, in southwest England (where the original story is thought to have taken place, and where this piece is set), Rice has adapted it well to an indoor, proscenium stage without losing the sense of freedom that comes from an outdoor venue.
We can't recommend this play enough, and we recommend taking your seats early to listen to the "pre-show" featuring the crooning of Carly Bawden, whose rendition of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" is top notch. But we'd caution anybody newly in love: This is the sort of story that makes you remember it might not last.
Tristan & Yseult plays through January 6. Get tickets here. And if you're under 30, make sure to select that option for discounted seats.