Chicago Theater Review: TRISTAN & YSEULT (Kneehigh at Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 3, 2014

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


Cheeky, goofy and sassy as it “cocks a snoot” at a literary legend, this irrepressible import from Kneehigh, a brassy Cornwall theater, should be injected as much as enjoyed. And, though it affectionately mocks a classic love tragedy, it actually does respect tradition—the legacy of Christmas pantomimes, Gilbert and Sullivan, music-hall mayhem, Monty Python, Benny Hill, and Peter Sellers and Ealing Studios. Yet, for all the inspired clowning of a dozen daffy tricksters, after an ingenious two hours in this vortex of vaudeville, their Tristan & Yseult manages to evoke much of the pathos of Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde.

Scene from Kneehigh's TRISTAN & YSEULT. Photo by Steve Tanner.Between now and April 13, no seat should go unsold in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard arena. The nicest thing on Navy Pier, Emma Rice’s adaptation and staging is joyful and intoxicating: It could turn theater into a prescription painkiller or a controlled substance.

The beyond-clever setting is the “Club of the Unloved,” a 60’s-style roost for a chorus of “Lovespotters,” as well as itinerant musicians, Pythonesque “brutes,” and “animators” of the ropes and pulleys that elevate the action. Center stage in this earnest travesty is a wooden circus-ring. It’s ground zero for silliness and sentiment, spoofery and soul. Here the suspension of disbelief is quite literal: The characters dangle in the throes of passion or a cockpit lifts up to allow Whitehand (Carly Bawden), the demure narrator with the pillbox hat, to belt a ballad above this “wooden O.”

Andrew Durand in TRISTAN & YSEULT. Photo by Steve Tanner.They’re assembled to celebrate the greatest romance that ever became a sidesplitting comedy. Cautionary and salacious, it’s the chief love triangle in medieval lore–the doomed romance between the French knight Tristan and the Irish princess Yseult. Untested in love, the maiden finds herself affianced to the formidable King Mark of Cornwall (a realm of great prosperity in the 12th century). Mark’s southwestern British fiefdom was rescued by Tristan from conquest by Morholt, a caricatured Irish thug-chieftain. But Mark’s beloved gets incredibly alienated from his affections. The transgressor is not just anyone—it’s Tristan, the man who found Yseult for his liege lord and who also killed her brother Morholt in battle.

Seduced by a too-clear love potion (quaffed from a bottle identical to one of white wine), the chemical-crossed lovers are helpless to resist a spell that only hastens the inevitable. Exposed by the desperately dutiful flunky Frocin (a hilarious Giles King) Stu Barker in TRISTAN & YSEULT. Photo by Steve Tanner.and his Polaroid camera, the lovers’ luck deserts them along with the effects of the elixir.

Rice’s version finds very different fates for T & Y from Wagner’s faithful version: One partner finds reconciliation, the other seeks destruction from a surrogate lover. They do NOT end up buried beneath the Tristan Stone a mile from Fowey, a harbor town in Cornwall.

But they’re triumphantly alive over Lake Michigan. “Born in sorrow” and destined for the short life that ensures a long legend, Andrew Durand’s stalwart Tristan defies any stained-glass iconography as he sprawls across a hammock under a bright red sail, heading toward happiness and doom. A pawn of passion and a potion, Etta Murfitt’s Yseult combines Carnaby Street cuteness with a gobsmacking zest for lust.

The musicians of Kneehigh's TRISTAN & YSEULT. Photo by Steve Tanner.Distinguished by his iambic pentameter as well as his commitment to order in his palace and his province, Stuart Goodwin’s magisterial King Mark is, happily, no caricature of cuckoldry. His first night with Yseult is a tour de force of farcical heartbreak: In a devastating drag role, the ever-compliant maidservant Brangian (the incredibly ripe-and-ready Craig Johnson) impersonates Yseult on the marriage bed. Given a situation that could have sunk into bad burlesque, Brangian’s post-coital bliss is as sweet as it’s sad. (With scary dexterity Johnson also plays the skull-crushing warrior Morholt, Yseult’s very bad brother.)

Andrew Durand and Carly Bawden in TRISTAN & YSEULT. Photo by Steve Tanner.Everything clicks in Kneehigh’s modern medieval morality play—Stu Barker’s eclectic score, Rice’s sardonic script (wise in the wiles and waste of love), go-for-broke stage combat, funky dance breakouts, and manic, merry mugging. Most remarkable is how swiftly the staging sobers up to deliver the power of an eternal romance. When Whitehands plays Wagner on a teenbopper’s record player, this gut-busting, eye-popping, and open-hearted Tristan & Yseult honors a glorious precedent. Laughter pays as much tribute as tears.

Scene from Kneehigh's TRISTAN & YSEULT - photo by Steve by Steve Tanner

Tristan & Yseult
Kneehigh Theatre Company
Chicago Shakespeare Theater in Chicago
scheduled to end April 13, 2014
for tickets, call 312-595-5600
or visit

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