Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

An Enchanting Production of Kneehigh's Production of Tristan & Yseult

Also see Jeanie's review of It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play and Richard's review of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, Arlington, My Beautiful Laundrette and Bebop Baby: A Musical Memoir

Andrew Durand and
Patrycja Kujawska

I will never see another production of Richard Wagner's magnificent opera Tristan and Isolde without thinking of the wild and wonderful Kneehigh production now playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. This is the British company who flabbergasted the Bay Area with The Wild Bride at Berkeley Rep and Brief Encounter at ACT.

The two hour and 10 minute production is based on the ancient Cornish love story of the knight Tristan's love for Yseult, the new wife of his liege, King Mark. This love triangle story has been done in opera and film as well, such as the little seen 2006 Kevin Reynolds flick starring James Franco as Tristan and Sophia Myles as Isolde. One can also be reminded of the famous love triangle of Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur. If you don't know the plot, let me make it simple. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, even though they shouldn't, they marry other people and everyone gets their heart broken.

Kneehigh's version has a lot of live music played by music director Ian Ross' fine small band. Even as the audience enters the theatre these fine musicians are playing spirited versions of Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson songs from high up on the stage with vivacious singer Carly Bawden belting out the lyrics.

Music plays an important part in the telling of the Cornish tale. It is connected with the story and helps to transport us to an entrancing world where the lovers are living out their tragic lives. There are snippets of Richard Wagner's score, a fantastic dance scene with a combo playing early Kurt Weill, and some wild Klezmer music. The characters break the fourth wall to make connections with the audience—in a sing along song and when about 10 audience members do something uproarious during the wedding scene. The company successfully mixes both comedy and drama together in many scenes.

Andrew Durand and Patrycja Kujawska give great performances as Tristan and Yseult. It's a thrill to watch them on a contraption that propels them out to the audience. Craig Johnson in drag as Brangian the devoted maid is hilarious. Watching him with the love melody of Wagner's opera in the background, clad in a dowdy frock and headscarf and making every entry with the aid of a covered trampoline is side splitting. Giles King is entertaining playing the horrid villain who gets the goods on the romantic encounters of the lovers and tells King Mark, wonderfully played by Mike Shepherd. Shepherd's superb theatrical voice is pleasing to the ears, speaking not only Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy's script but lines from Tennyson as well.

This amazing production is superbly directed by Emma Rica who also adapted the Cornish folk tale. Tristan & Yseult moves to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in February and Chicago Shakespeare in April

Tristan & Yseult plays through January 6th at Berkeley's Rep Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets 510-647-2949 or visit Coming up next is a world premiere of Marcus Gardley's The House That Will Not Stand opening on January 31 and running through March 19th.

Photo: Steve Tanner

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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