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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at St. Ann’s Warehouse


  Hannah Vassallo, Kirsty Woodward, Dominic Marsh and Damon Daunno/ Ph: Richard Termine

Eros and Thanatos may be the very meat of theatre – of life! – but as long as we’re pondering the imponderables, why not inject a bit of humor? When Great Britain’s Kneehigh company sinks its teeth into a narrative, make that a heaping helping.

As she did with Wild Bride, Red Shoes and Brief Encounters, adaptor/director Emma Rice winkles out every conceivable morsel of pleasure to be found in the generally grim saga of the Cornish knight Tristan (dashing Dominic Marsh) and Yseult (sparkling Hannah Vassallo), the Irish princess whom he’s duty-bound to retrieve as a spoil-of-war-slash-fiancée for Cornwall’s King Mark (imposing Mike Shepherd). All three end up loving one another (the source, a French roman, is thought to be a precursor of the Arthurian legend); however, one – or more – must go.

That the two younger lovers should become enamored en route to court is a given. What’s surprising here is that we view the entire romance from the contemporary perspective of a bunch of geeky, outcast “Lovespotters” – romantic rejectees who gather at the Club of the Unloved, where the house band, perched above the one-ring circus where the drama will unfold, specializes in such oldies as “Only the Lonely.” (I kept hoping for “Torn between Two Lovers.”)

Clad in dark anoraks and balaclavas, Clark Kent glasses rendering their faces all but identical, the “unloved” hover about the action, entertainingly ill at ease, while observing via binoculars and scribbling notes. Their ringleader, if you can call her that, is the uptight, embittered Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward), got up like Pat Nixon in a pillbox hat. If familiar with the centuries-old tale, you’ll grasp her role going in. All the better if you don’t, though: Rice’s script starts at the mystifying end, then recaps.

Making no effort toward verisimilitude except in terms of emotional resonance, the company makes a game of obvious artifice. The young lovers’ trysts, for instance, are rendered enchantingly weightless by means of acrobatic winches (an effect far sexier than it might sound). Each encounter is of necessity a communal activity, involving the beloved and the yearning unloved alike.

Of the courtiers who participate in the impending marriage, one supports a storyline every bit as touching as that of the doomed adulterers. That would be Brangian, Yseult’s chaperone and handmaid (Niall Ashdown in matter-of-fact, unglamorous drag). Were Brangian not a mere footnote to history, hers would be a story sufficient to melt the stoniest of hearts: It has its own grandeur. And yet so crack is Ashdown’s comic timing, every word and glance elicits a laugh.


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