Reviewed by Judy Richter
Bay Area theatergoers may recall Kneehigh's previous presentations of "Brief Encounter" at American Conservatory Theater and "The Wild Bride" at Berkeley Rep, both well received.
This time joint artistic director Emma Rice has reached into Cornish legend to adapt the story of Cornwall's King Mark (Mike Shepherd), who repels an Irish invasion and kills its leader. He then sends a French visitor, Tristan (Andrew Durand), to fetch the invader's sister, Yseult (Patrycja Kujawkska), and bring her to Cornwall for the king to marry.
Tristan does as he's told, but when he meets Yseult, there's an instant, passionate connection between them. Nevertheless, they go to Cornwall, where she marries the king and comes to care for him, but Tristan is still her true love. Of course, there's a tragic ending.
This same story inspired Richard Wagner to write "Tristan und Isolde." In the sound design by Gregory Clarke, orchestral music from that opera highlights some of the more dramatic scenes. Snatches of "O Fortuna" from Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" also are heard, along with country-western tunes. Other music is by Stu Barker.
Designer Bill Mitchell has created the versatile set, which places four musicians on a catwalk beneath a neon sign reading "The Club of the Unloved." He also outfits the cast in modern clothing, most of it black except for the women's dresses.
Shepherd, Kneehigh's founder and joint artistic director, has a commanding stage presence as King Mark. Durand and Kujawkska are beguiling as the two young lovers.
Among the supporting players, Craig Johnson is noteworthy first as the Irish leader and then in the female role of Brangian, Yseult's handmaiden. Carly Bawden plays Whitehands, who sings with the band before the first and second acts and interacts with the cast during the play itself. Giles King plays Frocin, the king's aide who reveals Tristan and Yseult's adultery to King Mark.
At various times, the actors play instruments to augment the musicians. Johnson, for example, plays accordion, while Kujawkska plays violin.
Rice's direction is wildly imaginative, making for Kneehigh's welcome return to the Bay Area.
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