The Bay Area has long been in love with Kneehigh, the theater company imported from Cornwall, England, by ACT for Brief Encounter in 2009 and by Berkeley Rep for The Wild Bride in 2011. Both shows used lavish theatricality — live actors popping out of movie screens, props descending on strings from the ceiling — to tell tales that were equal parts tragedy and mordant comedy, whimsical tale and unflinchingly honest portrait of adulthood.
Now, with Tristan and Yseult, Berkeley Rep has brought Kneehigh back, in keeping with its tradition of staging holiday shows that don't reference the holidays but are nonetheless magical. But with the same company comes the same formula. Tristan and Yseult, which chronicles a mythic Cornish love triangle, so mirrors The Wild Bride as to induce deja vu. Both plays tell fairy tales with framing devices: In The Wild Bride, a physical book literally bookended the play; in Tristan and Yseult, a chorus puts a record on and takes it off a turntable, playing music from Wagner's adaptation of the tale. The Wild Bride cleverly showed hands getting cut off by having the actress dip her hands in buckets of bright red paint; Tristan and Yseult evokes the blood from a slit throat with a tumbling red ribbon.
But if the tricks feel old, they still serve the company well. Performers, especially Carly Bawden and Andrew Durand, have singing voices as rich as butter, and prolonged dance sequences, staged by adapter and director Emma Rice, take the place of conversation; Rice needn't use dialogue to explain Tristan and Yseult's mutual infatuation when, with her wildly inventive choreography, she can show how love renders their bodies elastic.
If the play's first act bears the brunt of exposition — Tristan (Durand), on a revenge mission for the Cornish king (Mike Shepherd), seeks the king's enemy's sister Yseult (Patrycja Kujawska) for the king's own marriage and, of course, falls in love with her — the play's end is transcendent, collapsing a lifelong romantic relationship into a devastating series of peaks and troughs. No love or loss is ever final for Yseult, ultimately the story's central character. Over the rest of her life, as she does what's right for her and for her two men in given moments, she shows that the range and fullness of a human's love can't be contained by one relationship and its happily-ever-after. The play, refreshingly, doesn't judge her for not choosing one life path. It just beautifully laments her inability to straddle the multiple lives and loves she could have had.
Anthony Neilson's play, directed by Beth Wilmurt, is structured as an Edwardian freak show. The set, by Nina Ball, is a tiny stage that folds into the back of a truck, and Christine Crook, always a fastidious costume designer, excels especially with the backstage dressing room ensemble of Madame Poulet (Sarah Moser); Crook perfectly conjures images of actresses of yore who, with their flowing scarves, always seem to look part gypsy.
Gant, played by Brian Herndon with a too-narrow range (he delivers every line as if it's the climax of a ringmaster's shtick), is the master of ceremonies and occasional co-star in ballads with exquisitely arranged four-part harmonies and vignettes. The funniest of the latter concerns an Italian girl (Moser) with acne that "bubbles like a cauldron" and her evil sister Camponetti (Jones, crossing genders and races throughout the evening, always with accents that would fit perfectly in Looney Tunes).
The show could have been riotous as a straightforward variety show; Neilson has a knack for scrumptious zingers — "There's no place in the Catholic church for the sexual molestation of children, so they made one." But the play takes an unmotivated turn toward the metatheatrical halfway through when Jones, playing an actor in Gant's troupe, starts to rebel against his manager's predilection for tastelessness, sparking a debate about high art vs. low art. His qualms aren't exactly long-simmering, though; they seem to erupt spontaneously, careering the show into a heady arena that's not its natural home. The ending, which I won't spoil here, takes this seriousness to the extreme with a grisly twist that too easily dead-ends the debate, which came out of nowhere in the first place, all for the dubious purpose of being edgy for the sake of edginess during the holidays.
Shotgun may be an oasis for scrooges, but if it wants real bah- humbugs, it's got to earn them.