When you’ve taken Broadway and the world by storm with your magical, imaginative, supremely theatrical adaptation of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter, the question is what to do for an encore? Well, if you’re the Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre, the answer is to revive a decade-old company hit, then take it on the road, which is precisely why Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory is the place to be over the next few weeks for Kneehigh’s magical, imaginative, supremely theatrical adaptation of the legend of Tristan & Yseult.

tristan8 The tale being told here is one you’ve probably seen or heard before, most notably in the Richard Wagner opera Tristan Und Isolde, whose glorious climactic theme figures prominently in Tristan & Yseult in as eclectic a soundtrack as any you’ll hear onstage anytime soon, one which features live renditions of (among others) “Dream Lover,” “Get Lucky,” “Only the Lonely,” and “Perfidia” alongside prerecorded (and occasionally lipsynced) tracks, Yma Sumac’s “Mambo,” Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ “Sweetheart Come,” and Wagner’s “Liebestod” among them.

Wagner aficionados will recognize the dashing Tristan (Dominic Marsh), the French knight who fights on the side of Cornish King Mark (Mike Shepherd) against the dastardly Irish monarch Morholt (Niall Ashdown), upon whose execution the victorious King Of Cornwall determines to seal his victory by wedding Morholt’s sister Yseult, rhymes with “Result” (Hannah Vassallo).

tristan4 Since it would be both unseemly and risky for the young princess to voyage alone, the handsome Tristan is dispatched to escort her back to Cornwall. Unfortunately for King Mark, Tristan and Yseult’s journey home also involves considerable romantic fireworks (with a little help from a love potion that looks so much like wine, it’s no wonder they pick the more dangerous one).

There may have been romantic triangles in centuries before the 12th, but has any been more heady than that of Tristan and Yseult (aka Isolde aka Isolda) and Mark?

tristan3 And it gets headier still on the South Coast Rep stage with director-adapter Emma Rice, writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, and composer-musical director Stu Baker working their magic alongside production designer Bill Mitchell, lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth, sound designer Gregory Clarke, and a sensational cast of Kneehigh regulars.

Rice and company blend music, acrobatics, slapstick, gags, some groovy choreography, and one aerial sequence after another, the latter aided and abetted by Mitchell’s scenic design, one which includes ropes, harnesses, and pulleys recalling the rigging of a ship much like the model that propels Tristan & Yseult’s tremendously moving climax.

tristan2 Though I defy anyone with a heart not to be moved to tears by the final strains of “Liebestod,” it’s Tristan & Yseult’s lighter moments that are likely to spur word-of-mouth and insure packed houses throughout the show’s month-long SCR run.

You know you’re in for something out of the ordinary from the moment you enter the Segerstrom Stage and spot a band of goggles-and-knit-hoods-sporting “Love Spotters” circulating geekily through the aisles, the better to interview audience members on their own run-ins with love, as up onstage musicians perform 1950s/60s covers in The Club Of The Unloved.

tristan7 Everyone in Tristan & Yseult’s doubles at one time or another as a “Love Spotter,” and that includes the lean-and-seductive Marsh, the enchanting Vassallo, the stunning Kirsty Woodward (in statuesque Jackie Kennedy mode as the tragically lovelorn Whitehands), the dynamic duo of Ashdown and Shepherd, the former tripling in drag to surprisingly powerful effect as Yseult’s lady-in-waiting Brangian, and the terrifically supportive Tom Jackson Greaves and Róbert Lučkay as Lovepotters, Brutes, and Animators.

Still, if there’s any cast member you’ll be talking about after the show, it’s Damon Daunno as the wily Frocin, proving that his Best Featured Performance Scenie for Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter was no fluke. Not only does Daunno command the stage with abundant charisma, he croons swoonworthily, mambos with the best of them, and lipsyncs Yma Sumac so convincingly that he had one New York reviewer thinking it was his own soprano hitting the high notes.

tristan5 Rice scores highest marks for the most supremely imaginative production I’ve seen since her Brief Encounter, one which this time round includes a battle sequence as thrilling as it is joyous.

The musicians for Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult are the all-around superb Barker, Pat Moran, Justin Radford, Lizzy Westcott and James Gow.

Tristan & Yseult is produced by Paul Crewes. David Harraway is Kneehigh production manager and Joshua Marchesi SCR production manager. Steph Curtis is Kneehigh stage manager and Kristen Cruz SCR stage manager. Sophie & Larry Cripe and Steve & Laurie Duncan are honorary producers.

tristan6 No Southern California regional theater offers our local talents more opportunities to shine than South Coast Repertory, and only when it’s something exceptional (Chiglish and this past fall’s The Tempest) does SCR import a touring production. Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult is exceptional indeed, and well worth a drive down to Costa Mesa, as close as its ever going to get to L.A. Don’t miss it!

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South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
February 1, 2015
Photos: Richard Termine


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