by Tony Adler
The story of Tristan and Yseult is one of the iconic romantic narratives. Following the helpless, hopeless, traitorous affair between a queen (Yseult) and the knight (Tristan) her husband has treated like a son, it's old enough to have informed the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle. That uber-romantic Richard Wagner famously picked it up for his 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde. And now here's Kneehigh Theatre, come from Cornwall, UK, as part of Chicago Shakespeare Theater's World's Stage series, to give Chicago a look at their 2003 take on the tale.
Oddly enough, Kneehigh seems to share my skepticism. Adapter-director Emma Rice has immersed the tortured love story in a low-comic bath: the audience is understood to be at a bistro called the Club for the Unloved, where a crisp torch-song singer covers tunes like "Crazy" and "Only the Lonely." Her unloved regulars include a half-dozen awkward and lonely souls who dress like birders on a rainy day, in balaclavas, slickers, black-rimmed glasses, and binoculars. Their goofiness is so bald (funny dances, silly voices, glitter barrettes with wiggly antennae) and apparently irrelevant that they seem poised to drown the whole enterprise.
But something entirely different happens instead. Over the course of 150 fast, exuberant, inventive minutes the weirdly jolly pathos of the unloved bonds with the exalted anguish of the lovers to produce a show that gets at each of a thousand paradoxes of love. Though not everything Kneehigh's done here makes sense on reflection (and the map of Georgia tattooed on Tristan's torso is a complete puzzlement), the execution is beautiful, sharp, hilarious, and deeply cathartic.
Tristan & Yseult Through 4/13, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com, $20-$70.