May 8, 2015

Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult @ Alley Theatre

Kneehigh, a British theatre company, are touring the US with their production of Tristan & Yseult.  They premiered this play in 2003 and designed it for two outdoor spaces.  It put the company on the map, which led to adapting it to be performed indoors.  I'm thrilled that I got to see this innovative tragic romance since it is currently being performed by Kneehigh at the Alley Theatre.

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Tristan & Yseult is a wonderfully stagey production.  The special effects are mostly blatantly artificial, finding delight in a red scarf acting as a flood of blood or stagehands walking around flapping the wings of plastic birds and making cooing sounds.  There are no attempts at realism, just a submersion into a heightened world where a love potion can hasten lust and hands can heal and heartbreak can kill.

The center stage is a ring that separates into two pieces, overlooked by some catwalk and a smaller stage where the band sits.  Music is almost constant in Tristan & Yseult (sometimes drowning out the words).  There are some covers of popular songs (notably "Get Lucky" transitioning from the intermission), snippets of classics ("O Fortuna" and most notably Wagner's Tristan und Isolde), and the score by Stu Barker.  It involves everything from guitar to dulcimer and flute (played by Yseult herself).

The cast is wonderful.  Everyone does double-duty as the Unloved, a hooded and rainslickered chorus that serves as stage hands and background comedy.  Dominic Marsh plays the French Tristan with an accent and rock star attitude.  Hannah Vassallo plays the Irish Yseult with passion, and makes good use of her background in dance.  However, I can't decide if the standout actor is Damon Duanno or Niall Ashdown.  Duanno plays Frocin, the servant determined to reveal the affair since Tristan took his place in King Mark's court.  He can sing, he can dance, he can bark like a dog.  He's energetic and hilarious and owns the stage on the long scenes that cede him control of it.

Ashdown, meanwhile, plays too very different roles.  Morholt is a thug and Yseult's loving brother - killed by Tristan.  Brangian is Yseult's comical maid who helps her hide her tryst with Tristan.  The crossdressing is somewhat comedic in itself (there are no attempts to make Ashdown actually pass as a woman), but Branigan's departure from the play is beautiful and tragic.  He makes you forget what a figure of fun Branigan has been.  It's an encapsulation of the whole play in one biting, short speech.

The end of Tristan & Yseult didn't quite work for me.  It pushes the comedy so much, and is just so fun and high energy, that there is no real way for the turn to tragedy not to be somewhat jarring.  It is foreshadowed well, but could be smoother.  I also feel like the play transcends the language.  Carl Grose and Anna Maria wrote most of it in rhyming couplets.  This sometimes veers twee, especially between the eponymous lovers.  There's also lots of repetition, some of it not so effective.  But the performances and stages more than make up for these weaknesses.

Tristan & Yseult runs through May 24 at the Alley Theatre.  I highly recommend going to see it if you can.  If it isn't playing near you, hopefully Kneehigh will come your way eventually with a cast and band at least half this good.

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