Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Love of The Nightingale"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark

"The Love of The Nightingale"

by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Todd Hearon

Set Design, Costumes, Props by Marian Cooke
Costumes by Kristen Corman
Lighting Design, Carpentry by Jay Dubois
Stage Manager R. M. Weiner

Philomel...........Helen McElwain
Procne...............Erin E. Bell
King Pandion..........Peter Lurie
Tereus..............Jeffrey Jones
Niobe................Hilary Fabre
Captain...............Dan Koughan
Itys.................Rob Korobkin
Female Chorus
Helen................Maggie Dietz
Hero..................Penny Frank
Iris................Krista Watson
Echo............Meredith Plunkett
Male Chorus/Soldiers
Andrew Hannah, Jay Dubois

"Didn't you want me to ask questions?" is the last line of this play, spoken in the total darkness of eternity by young Itys to his aunt Philomel. The Bridge Theatre's retelling of the Greek myth of Tereus' rape of his sister-in-law, of his cutting out her tongue to cover the crime, of his own mother Procne's murder of Itys in revenge, raises questions and demands thought. Staged in the round, and leaning heavily on ritual and tableaux as well as simple, straight-forward speech, the story is intimate yet aloof, classic, modern and timeless. And it does provoke questions.

Marian Cooke's in-the-round stage concentrates the tiny playing space of the BCA's Leland Center even farther, so that action takes place almost in the laps of spectators, but there is also space behind the audience for the chorus to walk, giving their commentary. At the outset the cast circulates through the playing-space, in costume, conversing in hushed whispers with one another, among yet separate from the spectators. They wear the simple, expressive costumes Cooke and Kristen Corman have devised --- white gowns for women, black uniforms for men.

This air of aloof intimacy flows through the entire play. Lines are delivered directly, flatly, as though they were conversation rather than acting. Passion, violence, horror and reaction are re-enacted, but on a human scale. The story may be new to most, familiar to some, but always compelling.

Author Timberlake Wertenbaker has added insights of her own to the classic tale. Philomel and her older sister Procne (Helen McElwain and Erin E. Bell) are Athenians, familiar with the philosophers' habit of asking questions. The play starts with Philomel pestering her older sister with questions about sex. King Pandion (Peter Lurie) and his Thracian ally Tereus (Jeffrey Jones) celebrate victory with a play --- "Medea" --- and they question whether the passion of love is justification enough for immoral acts. Later Tereus uses that play to justify his own rape of Philomel.

Staged in this way, the turn of a head takes on monumental significance. Director Todd Hearon has made certain that every gesture, every detail adds to the full effect. When the Thracian Maenads dance, wrapping their pure white Athenian gowns with browns, long ribbons the color of blood fall from their fingers. The captain (Dan Koughan) of the vessel bringing Philomel to visit her sister wears a pea-coat and cap, a corncob pipe clasped in his teeth, and later he swings a kerosene lantern.

The chorus here welds itself into an entity, just as the entire cast is a unified whole. A twist of silver cord about the forehead becomes a crown, cheesecloth flung over folding-chairs turns them into thrones, domino masks change actors in the play into actors playing "Medea", and the scene changes with a word. The play takes only an hour and forty-five timeless minutes. The myth reverberates long after.


"The Love of The Nightingale" (till 28 June)
Leland Center, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide