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Tristan & Yseult

Kneehigh returns to Brooklyn with their groundbreaking love story about the unloved.

Hannah Vassallo, Kirsty Woodward, Dominic Marsh, and Damon Daunno in Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult, directed by Emma Rice, at St. Ann's Warehouse.
(© Richard Termine)

It's an open secret in the theater that the young lovers are usually the least interesting characters, both to watch and to play. Cornwall England's Kneehigh Theatre seems to recognize this fact, opting to accentuate the trials of peripheral characters in their magnificent Tristan & Yseult, finally making its New York premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse.

First performed in the ruins of a Cornish castle over a decade ago, Tristan & Yseult catapulted Kneehigh to national acclaim in 2005 when it was co-produced in London with Britain's National Theatre. American fans who have come to love Kneehigh for its scrupulously theatrical productions like The Wild Bride and Broadway's Brief Encounter won't want to miss this seminal work.

Tristan & Yseult is based on an old legend of Cornwall about a knight and his forbidden love affair with the queen. While the story has been passed down through the centuries, it is perhaps most popularly immortalized in Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde. Director Emma Rice makes good use of Wagner's score (and a dozen highly disparate musical sources) for her idiosyncratic version of the story.

A Greek chorus of "the Unloved" welcomes us to the theater. Their leader is Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward), a Jackie O. lookalike wearing dark sunglasses and clenching a cigarette between her gloved fingers. Whitehands and the Unloved guide us through the story, offering commentary at every turn.

French knight Tristan (Dominic Marsh) is a wanderer who comes to the aid of King Mark (Mike Shepherd) when Cornwall is attacked by Morholt (Niall Ashdown), the cruel King of Ireland. Tristan helps defeat the Irish invaders and Morholt is executed. To salt the wound, Mark decides to take Morholt's sister, Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) as his queen. He sends Tristan to retrieve her. Complications arise, however, when Tristan and Yseult fall for each other on the long sea journey from Ireland to Cornwall. Can Tristan still be a good vassal when he's cuckolding his king?

If all this medieval violence and romance sounds like a downer, fear not: This is very likely the funniest version of the Tristan legend ever told, thanks to an ensemble of talented comedians. The Irishmen step-dance; the unloved gawk at the lovers and take notes; everyone interacts with the audience though they're performing in a particularly amusing panto.

Ashdown also gives a hilarious performance as Brangian, Yseult's loyal maid who clownishly tries to keep the two lovers apart as they arrive in Cornwall. The laughter fades when Brangian is called upon to make a huge sacrifice to maintain Yseult's cover. Fleeing the King's marriage bed, she bitterly asks the audience, "And what of my wedding night? Will a queen take my place for me? Not likely. Not bloody likely." In the world of Kneehigh, the line between comedy and tragedy is often paper thin.

Traversing this divide several times in the evening, human cartoon Damon Daunno gives a standout performance as King Mark's loyal servant Frocin. Wearing greasy hair and heavy gold chains, he lip-synchs and dances wildly to Yma Sumac's Mambo! Yet when Frocin actually opens his mouth to sing, he intones some of the show's saddest and most lovelorn music. Frocin can't understand why his devotion is only met with scorn from the king. While the show's title suggests this is a story about Tristan and Yseult, it's really about Brangian, Frocin, and the masses of lonely people suffering around them.

Composer Stu Barker and his band underscore their unrequited love with an eclectic soundtrack that runs the gamut from renaissance to country to rock. Actors join the band as musicians and vocalists when necessary, moving in and out of the elevated bandstand above which hangs a sign that reads "The Club of the Unloved."

Designer Bill Mitchell creates this club with an austere whimsy. A bilevel central unit serves as the main playing space, with the actors literally springing onto it using a trampoline. Three pulley systems run parallel with a central mast, giving these wooden platforms a nautical feel for the out-at-sea scenes as well as facilitating the aerial tricks Rice uses throughout the play. The lovers swing on the ropes with wild abandon; Frocin hovers above them clutching a Polaroid camera like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible; the crew hoists a red sail for Cornwall.

Tristan & Yseult is a sensory feast. Each design detail is integral to the story, and brilliantly put to use by Rice and her cast. By the end you'll be willing to follow them anywhere, be it Cornwall, Ireland, or beyond. The performances are incredibly committed. Kneehigh is the gold standard of theatrical rigor, fortified by a heavy dose of fun.

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