ArtsEmerson's "Tristan & Yseult": You've Got (Chain) Mail

The Club of the Unloved from "Tristan & Yseult"
(photo: Kneehigh Theater)

ArtsEmerson's current offering is “Tristan & Yseult”, a production by the Kneehigh Theater, the folks who brought the inventive “Brief Encounter” to Broadway in 2010. The company was founded in Cornwall in the southwest of England in 1980 by Mark Shepard. This play, written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, members of the company, and directed by Emma Rice, joint Artistic Director of the company, is a far cry from the more familiar 1865 version of Richard Wagner whose “Tristan and Isolde” is a monumental work. Their approach to the tale is decidedly less serious (until the finale) and unabashedly silly.
The basic story, which will resonate with those who cherish the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Camelot”, concerns the clandestine affair of Tristan (Dominic Marsh), a French knight, who defeats the Celtic warrior Morholt (Niall Ashdown), and Morholt's “elfin” sister Yseult (Hannah Vassallo), who is claimed by his Cornish uncle King Mark (Stuart Goodwin). King Mark orders Tristan to return to Ireland to bring her back so that she may wed the king, which she does, even though meanwhile she and Tristan have fallen wildly in love. (Actually, the term “fallen” would be more accurately described as “soaring” wildly in love). When King Mark discovers their tryst, he has to decide between executing them and banishing them from the kingdom. Also involved are Yseult's maid Brangian (Ashdown again), the king's devoted Frocin (Damon Daunno), the narrator, Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward), and a sort of Greek Chorus of the Unloved (“Lovespotters”). Along the way they're supported by a fine four piece onstage band that performs an eclectic songbook including “Only the Lonely:, “Dream Lover”, and “Get Lucky”. Even Wagner.is heard, though on a prerecorded tape. Oh, and of course, there's a love potion, as in all versions of the fate of the fabled twosome.

Rice's direction is entertaining throughout the piece, pushing the energetic company to greater and greater heights (literally), while pretty much demolishing the third wall in the process. Standouts are Marsh and Vassallo as the titular duo of lovers (though we're not given much character development), the cross-dressing Ashdown's Brangian, and above all the rubber-legged Daunno. The writing sometimes suffers, especially when the rhyming is forced (as in this example: “fatherly love is all very well, but too much of it is a ticket to hell”). The circus-like Scenic Design by Bill Mitchell is terrific, as is the Lighting Design by Malcolm Rippeth (notably in that finale) and the wacky Sound Design by Gregory Clarke. The Costume Supervisor, Ed Parry, has clothed most of the cast in modified hoodies that mimic the chain mail outfits of medieval times.

It's a fast-paced frolic from the first scene to the penultimate one; the finale suddenly turns unexpectedly serious, becoming unarguably the most engaging part of the performance, with Wagnerian accompaniment at that. The operatic version was dismissed with some rather unkind words recently by Rice (though Wagner's work is far superior to this one, even if admittedly far less fun), so it's extraordinarily ironic that this closing scene is the most effective one. If broadness of humor and slapstick are right up your alley (think Monty Python, though not often approaching them at their best), you'll have a pretty good idea of whether or not this is your cup of mead.

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