REVIEW ‌ Tristan & Yseult 

Action! Comedy! Nerds! Like a spicy buffet, this play offers something for everyone

click to enlarge Lovespotters and the bitter Mistress Whitehands watch as Tristan and Yseult fall into loves messy web
  • Lovespotters and the bitter Mistress Whitehands watch as Tristan and Yseult fall into loves messy web

The British are notoriously mean to their nerds. Over here, geeks like Steve Jobs and Quentin Tarantino have been elevated to a status of begrudging respect as an acknowledgement of their hard work and success. Across the pond, obsessive bores are ridiculed as if life is one long high school taunting match.

Among these reviled geeks are the subspecies of trainspotters. Locomotives are their obsession, and they spend their spare time documenting timetables and watching trains leave stations. They rarely leave with those trains, preferring to stand and watch instead. They wear anoraks and balaclavas, eat muesli, carry binoculars and notebooks. Their lives revolve around serial numbers and cold metal freight carriers.

At least, that’s the trainspotting stereotype and one that’s traded on in Tristan & Yseult. The Greek chorus-style observers of the play dress and act like trainspotters but love is their fixation. They take notes on nuptials, clock kisses, and watch lovers come and go. They rarely get involved in the action and when they do, they get their hearts broken and their observer status restored. They’re members of the Club of the Unloved, where a band called Martin and the Misfits plays sad love songs and the bitter Mistress Whitehands tells the tale of two young lovers — Tristan and Yseult.

This show hooks the audience from the top by sending spotters into the aisles. This places the agreeable chorus at our level, while the main protagonists are vaunted on a raised platform, part of a functional set designed by Bill Mitchell. Back on stage, the spotters sing songs (sometimes badly), joke with us and provide comic relief in deference to the enduring power of the variety format. But they’re just one ingredient to leaven the more serious aspects of a play that contains something to delight everyone: foolish humor, fetching imagery, mad passion, likeable characters, and a couple of excessively choreographed, violent action scenes, a cross breed of West Side Story and Reservoir Dogs. It’s as if the creators of this show have been doing some compulsive collecting of their own, checking off all the things they love about theatre. Why not throw them all in and give everyone a good time?

As in any collection, there are some items that are proudly displayed for all to see. The acting is always slick. Mike Shepherd as King Mark shows great range in an emotional arc that runs from tough guy to cuckold to a member of the Unloved Club. Giles King is memorable as King Mark’s high-pitched psycho henchman, Frocin. Tristan Sturrock, looking like he fell asleep on Folly Beach and got sunburned, is the quietly smoldering French knight Tristan; Èva Magyar makes a passionate Yseult. It’s the physical movements of the two leads that are most effective in showing their relationship — their dialogue is occasionally obscured by the Misfits’ live music or snatches of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

The multitasking cast switch from their anoraks into contemporary black suits or timeless dresses to play other characters in an entertaining display of dramatis split personae. In their trademark self-referential fashion, the actors have fun with the kind of sleight of hand that usually draws an audience’s attention away from the rough edges of a play. For example, a crash mat used for jumps and falls is pointed out by one of the spotters. “Mind that black cushion,” he says, “I don’t think anyone’s noticed it.”

The centuries-old story remains solid despite whatever 21st century trimmings director/adapter Emma Rice adds. With Tristan’s aid, King Mark defeats his Irish rival Morholt. Tristan is dispatched to retrieve Yseult from Morholt’s kingdom and falls in love with her, thanks in part to a powerful potion that can “sweeten a sour kiss.” Although Yseult marries Mark, she still has the hots for her knight in shining ardor. The audience is left in no doubt that there’ll be tears before bedtime.

As Mistress Whitehands, Katy Carmichael helps the tale segue from the first pangs of devotion, through messy love triangle trials to the years-later finale. She creates a sense that we’re all in on the joke of love’s foolishness and the artifice of theatre; when it’s time to play some non-diegetic opera music, she holds up a record album so that everyone will get the references to Wagner. Along with the spotters she creates a very English air of self-effacing comedy that rescues the show from its flaws — an uneven pace and tone, and King Mark’s doggerel speech that takes gorgeous metaphors then shoehorns them into rhyming couplets.

With a sincerely wrought ending that will resonate with even the most cynical ex-lovers in the audience, Tristan & Yseult stretches theatre’s capabilities and our suspension of disbelief, packing in wrestling, cross-dressing, tender romance and a smattering of audience participation along the way. Above all, the nonstop onstage exuberance makes this an unforgettable experience.

TRISTAN & YSEULT • Spoleto Festival USA • $35-$75 • May 27, 29, 31, June 2, 6-10 at 8 p.m. • May 28, June 3 at 3:30 p.m. & 8:30 p.m.; June 4, 11 at 3.30 p.m.

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