ArtsEmerson Delivers Comically Tragic ‘Tristan & Yseult’ (4.5 Stars)

Tristan & Yseult – Written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy; Adapted and Directed by Emma Rice. Presented by ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage Emerson and by Kneehigh, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St, Boston through March 15, 2015

If you are one of those romantics who believe that crazy love is the only real love, as I once heard a radio DJ say, ‘Tristan & Yseult”, ArtsEmerson’s latest import to their ‘World On Stage’ series, should be on your must-see list. But even if you’re a little more practical-minded in your views on romance, this is still a great night out – particularly if you enjoy a non-conforming approach to theater. The UK-based theatre company Kneehigh’s piece is difficult to describe, but is an imaginative and ultimately profound production whose whole greatly exceeds the sum of its parts. From a theatrical perspective, the show combines music, dance, acrobatics, and lots and lots of comedy to deliver its mythological tale, all of which combine to set us up for a powerful look at love and the loneliness of being left out of its orbit.

The production opens in the Club of the Unloved, where the band (set back and elevated above the action stage left) plays a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” as actors, uniformly adorned in windbreakers, binoculars, sneakers, Clark Kent-esque horn rimmed glasses, and full head (but not face) knit hats, putter about looking very unsure of themselves. Whitehands, the story’s Jackie O-ish narrator, appears and announces, “We are the unloved! We are the love watchers!” before the performance unfolds, and she and the small herd of “Lovespotters” guide us through the action.

Based on the 12th century tale which later served as the basis for Wagner’s opera “Tristan Und Isolde” (which is played a 1960’s phonograph as the show begins and throughout the piece), the narrative is uncannily similar to the love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot – right down to the charming Frenchman. King Mark rules Cornwall with his head and not his heart, and it shows on his joyless face. He meets Tristan, his long lost son (?) from France, and together the pair repel the Irish invaders led by Morholt and his step-dancing thugs. After Morholt is slain, Mark sends a wounded Tristan to Ireland to fetch the Irishman’s sister to be his bride. The ethereally beautiful Yseult is also a healer who nurses him back to health, and with the help of massive doses of wine and a love potion, the couple fall “in love” on the voyage home.

Which inevitably causes problems given that King Mark is to marry the woman that Tristan is now boinking. Mark falls hopelessly in love immediately upon meeting Yseult, and proclaims that he will now rule with his heart and not his head. And this is where the tone of the evening shifts from clever songs and dance, audience participation/pandering and a kind of deliberate weirdness to a more emotionally weighty and powerful experience. On her wedding night, Yseult asks her servant to stand in for her (in disguise, of course) so that the king will not know that she is not chaste, and she dutifully obeys. Up until this point, the female servant Brangian (played by a laughably cross-dressed Niall Ashdown, who also played Morholt) has been comic relief, but when she reveals her feelings about what she had done in her service to the queen, the frivolity of the evening comes to an abrupt halt with all the force of a high speed car wreck.

It is also a harbinger for the tone for the heartbreaking second act.
What’s remarkable about this performance is not the singing, dancing or comic bits in of themselves (although they are terrific), but in the clever way that they’re knitted together to present the story in such a fresh and imaginative way. Although Wagner’s opera is sampled throughout the play, there are also versions of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” thrown into the mix, and the dance breaks include some very clever numbers, especially by Damon Daunno (as the brown-nosing Frocin, the king’s right hand man). The talented duo of Hannah Vassallo and Dominic Marsh play the ridiculously attractive but doomed lovers, and Kirsty Woodward and Stuart Goodwin are brilliant as the tragically heart-wounded Whitehands and King Mark.

Even if “love is the euphoria of the impossible” as Whitehands tells us towards the end of the show, and really can’t be achieved to our satisfaction, it’s still a lot of fun watching other people trying to get there, particularly in the hands of such skilled performers as Kneehigh. Don’t miss this. For more info, go to: