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Tristan and Yseult
Aux Dog Theatre Nob Hill
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Rob's reviews of Savage/Love, The Night Alive and Stage Kiss

Michael Weppler and Evening Star Barron
Photo by Russell Maynor
Tristan and Yseult have been around for a long long time, probably about 900 years. Their love story is one of the seminal romances of European literature. They most likely were the template for the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur tales, and they were immortalized in music by Richard Wagner in his Tristan und Isolde, one of the most influential operas ever composed.

The basic story, whether purely fictional or partly historical, is that Tristan, a French knight in the service of King Mark of Cornwall, is sent to Ireland to bring the princess Yseult to Cornwall so she can wed Mark. Tristan arrives in Ireland wounded, and Yseult heals him. They fall in love, of course, perhaps or perhaps not due to a love potion that they drink on the ship to England.

Yseult dutifully marries King Mark, but cannot help carrying on an affair with Tristan. Mark eventually catches on and condemns them to death, but Tristan, wounded, escapes back to France where he dies just as Yseult is coming to heal him. So distraught is she at seeing her loved one dead that she immediately dies at his side. Their love can flourish only in death (and thus the Liebestod, the Love-Death, from Wagner's opera).

A story as old as this one inevitably takes on some accretions over the centuries. Two of them that I was not aware of are used in this version by Carl Grose and Anna Marie Murphy (adapted by Emma Rice, the original director). They are from the Kneehigh theatrical troupe, which is based in Cornwall, so you can see why the story appealed to them.

One variation is that Yseult is no longer a virgin by the time she reaches Cornwall, but knows that she must be if she is to wed the king, so she commands her hymen-intact handmaiden Brangian to replace her in bed on the wedding night. King Mark doesn't notice the substitution in the dark, so Yseult gets away with it, but poor Brangian is then damaged goods.

The other is that when Tristan returns to France, he marries a different Yseult, called Whitehands. He thinks that because of her name, she can take the place of the other Yseult, but of course he cannot really love her. When he is dying, he sends for his beloved Yseult to come by ship to France and heal him. He is so weak that he cannot even look out the window, but has arranged that if she is coming, the ship will fly a white sail; if she is not on board, the ship will fly a black sail (reminiscent of the Aegeus-Theseus myth). Yseult Whitehands, out of jealousy, lies and tells him that the ship has a black sail, and he dies just before the other Yseult reaches him.

There is plenty of drama and melodrama here, but apparently the creators of this show think that isn't enough to hold the attention of a modern audience for an hour of playing time (there's an unnecessary intermission). Instead of playing it straight, they trick it up at every turn. This is the kind of show where everybody is barefoot; where they hand out balloons to the audience (then take them back, that's how small the budget is); where they break out into modern dance numbers intermittently; where characters talk directly to the audience, forcing us into audience participation; where Tristan wears a hat that makes him look like he just flew in from Brooklyn. Some of this is fun, most is not.

A little of the dialogue is in French and some in what is probably Gaelic, but even though the characters are from three different nations, they all sound American when they speak English. King Mark speaks in iambic pentameter rhyming couplets, which is probably supposed to sound regal and Shakespearean, but is more distracting than elevating. The narrator is Yseult Whitehands, who also usually rhymes, and she is backed up by a trio of "Love Spotters" who, together with Whitehands, make up the Chorus of the Unloved, to which are gradually added three more characters. The Chorus of the Unloved is not a bad idea, as a contrast to Tristan and Yseult's flaming passion, but unfortunately, the Love Spotters have almost nothing to do except hang around toward the back of the stage.

I like the original music by Casey Mraz, but the other music is eclectic to the point of being show-offy. Among other things, there's some Tony Bennett, and a tiny snippet of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" used when Tristan first arrives from France, which is clever, but it's there mainly to make the audience feel good about themselves if they get the allusion.

The costumes range from King Mark's traditional robe to Tristan's hipster attire. The costuming, staging, and music are evidently meant to demonstrate that the story of Tristan and Yseult is not a relic but is relevant to all time periods, including our own. The drawback is that the emotional core of the story is almost completely obscured by the theatrical and meta-theatrical trappings surrounding it. The only moments I felt anything at all were when Brangian was ruminating on her ruined future and when Yseult arrived in France and realized it was too late to save her Tristan. All the rest was just show.

Everyone involved tried really hard to pull this off but could not overcome the (to my mind) misguided conception of it. Sometimes I felt sorry for the actors, and I hate having that feeling. Michael Weppler (Tristan), Evening Star Barron (Yseult), John Byrom (Mark), Vincent Marcus Kirby (Frocin, a sycophantic courtier), Meghan Truckey (Brangian), Fawn Hanson (Whitehands), and Ali Agirnas (Morholt, an Irish knight who gets killed by Tristan early on) could all be talented performers in the right roles. I don't think this play gives them the opportunity to show what their capabilities are.

Leigh Hile, the director, probably did as well as she could with the material. I know I sound like an old fogey, like I don't want people messing with the classics, but I'm really quite open to innovative theatrical techniques if they serve some purpose other than pandering to short attention spans.

Tristan and Yseult is being presented at the Aux Dog Theatre Nob Hill, 3011 Monte Vista NE (just north of Central) in Albuquerque. Through November 22, 2015. Friday and Saturday at 8:00, Sunday at 2:00. Info at or 505-254-7716.

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