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kneehigh tristan and yseultAs I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, I saw my first play at 10 years old when I was growing up in Manila, thanks to my mom who loved musical theater with a passion.  Since then I’ve continued to be entranced by the magic and inspiration of live theater, literally having seen thousands of plays in my roughly two scores and change on this planet. Although theatergoing is embedded deep into my DNA, of course  I’ve had some nights over the years as well when I’ve asked myself that split second before the lights dimmed, shouldn’t  I just be at home eating greasy egg rolls in my comfy “I Survived the Coldest Minnesota Winter in a Hundred Years- 1995” sweatshirt,  binge-watching Built (for those of you who think the Shahs of Sunset is the name of a falafel food truck, Built is a Style Channel TV show were male models  work as handymen during the day, sort of like the ultimate gay porn movie without the porn)? Frankly, sometimes I feel like going to the theater is a chore (and if it’s a play by Sarah Ruhl an unbearable root canal). Then I see a play that is so thrilling and enjoyable and wistfully beautiful that I’m strikingly reminded why I fell in love with theater all those years ago. Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult, currently onstage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater invaluable World’s Stage series in a regrettably limited run, is one of the most perfect nights that you can spend in the theater, filled with music, dance, movement, imaginative staging and entrancing story-telling, a show both poignant and warm-blooded; it is an extraordinary experience that proves why theater is first among equals in the performing arts.

Kneehigh, based in Cornwall in the UK and widely known for innovative, lively, multi-disciplinary productions, is generally at the top of the list to follow for those who know their theater.  The company has been all over the US the past several years (I was making plans to see their highly acclaimed, singular live performance and film combo take on Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter which enjoyed a healthy Broadway run but had to skip it at the last minute), but bafflingly the group has never been to Chicago. Well, they’ve finally landed, very much belatedly, in what is arguably the leading theater city in North America, and was it worth the wait. Tristan & Yseult, loosely based on an old Cornish legend about star-crossed lovers which have inspired many an artist from Tennyson to Wagner (whose masterpiece Tristan und Isolde is considered one of the all-time best operas), made Kneehigh’s international reputation when it premiered in the UK in 2004 and subsequently toured around the world.  It is a gloriously conceived, directed, and performed show: the tragic love story of Tristan, the French soldier who is heir to the Cornish throne, and Yseult, the Irish noblewoman he is taking back to be his father’s wife as a spoil of war, is told by a trenchcoat-wearing group of Lovespotters and their icy, world-weary leader Whitehands in the cabaret-like Club of the Unloved.  There’s a lot of dazzling theatricality on display from adapter/director Emma Rice (who is also one of Kneehigh’s Artistic Directors) and writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy:  from the live band’s exhilaratingly eclectic musical numbers which cleverly move the story along (running the gamut from Patsy Cline to Nick Cave to Michael Jackson to Roy Orbison) to the lovers’ literally acrobatic consummation of their love to the ingenious, surprising use of props from balloons that the audience blow up to mirrors, gauzy cloths, and DIY toy ships.

But the storytelling is always clear, crisp, and tight, and the staging is never distracting or extraneous: Kneehigh’s melancholy, almost pessimistic view on love is that it is almost always painful and cutting, that it requires selflessness and devotion which sometimes us humans find difficult to provide, and that the heady, rushing, romantic love of the young may not be true love at all.  And this point of view is most powerfully conveyed in the simply-written, creatively-staged, and heartbreakingly performed scene (by original cast member Craig Johnson who plays both male and female roles in the play with impressive bravado, impeccable comic timing, and meticulously-constructed nuance) in which Yseult’s nursemaid Brangian takes her place during her wedding night to deceive the King about her lost virginity, the older woman giddy with desire and yearning but also heartbroken that the King is making love to her thinking she’s another. It is a powerful and memorable scene.

Johnson is clearly the show’s MVP but the rest of the 12 person cast is stellar: Andrew Durand’s Tristan is a sexy, impetuous boytoy while Etta Murfitt’s Yseult is grounded and warm, yet youthfully spontaneous; Stuart Goodwin’s King Mark is both noble and imperious; Giles King’s Frocin who is King Mark’s henchman, loyalist and unrequited bromancer is hilarious, alternatingly menacing and exuberant; and Carly Bawden’s Whitehands is appropriately diva-cool and hipster-chic.  They make this Tristan & Yseult a rapturous, euphoric ride for the audience, and for some of us who sometimes feel like we’ve had too much theatrical root canals recently, a wonderful, vigorous renewal.

Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult is only playing until April 13 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave on Navy Pier. Get.Your.Tickets.

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