Incorporating 300 or 400 years of British theater, with sojourns into such staples of British comedy as "The Goon Show" and Monty Python, the ancient Cornish tale of "Tristan & Yseult" gets a wildly exciting tragicomic twist from Britain's Kneehigh Theater, which opened the West Coast premiere of the show Tuesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
This is one of those rare shows that not only satisfies any possible theatrical demands, but has you grinning like an idiot and occasionally on the verge of tears, all in two hours. Marketers could bill this show thusly: "You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll launch flatulent balloons before intermission."
Yes, audience members did launch balloons. But engaging the crowd is just one aspect of how Kneehigh, which also brought the acclaimed "The Wild Bride" to Berkeley Rep last year and earlier this year, concocts its magic. What the company does is collaboratively create an alternate universe for stories like "Tristan and Yseult" to live. There are no particular rules in this world that marries comedy, theater, acrobatics, live music and -- in the case of "Tristan" -- an ancient story of star-crossed lovers. A young princess, Yseult (Patrycja Kujawska) is brought to King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd) by his minion, Tristan (Andrew Durand) to be the king's bride. Naturally, Yseult and Tristan fall in love by the time they get to the king, thus creating a love triangle and big trouble with the king.
We've seen this sort of story a million times. But here, it is only the beginning of the show. It is embellished, decorated, gilded, wallpapered, flashed back, filled with a joyous array of music, sung, danced and basically dolled up as your ticket to a first-class flight of fancy. You watch this thing for 10 minutes and feel you are seriously lacking in the innovation department.
This group, led by artistic director Emma Rice, makes you feel as if the performers are making it all up on the spot, doing whatever crosses their minds.
However the piece has been carefully developed by Rice and her cast, who rehearse the show not with a written script, but an idea of where the story goes and what will happen along the way. Just how the cast gets there and what they do along the way is conceived during rehearsals, and based on the particular talents of the cast members.
As Yseult, Kujawska plays the violin, not because it's part of the story, but because she can. She also has considerable experience in physical theater, cabaret and dance -- and stunningly uses each of these talents in the show.
Durand has considerable movement and acting experience, with stints in "Warhorse" and "Spring Awakening" on Broadway. He blends exceedingly well with Kujawska as they create their heartbreaking love story over the course of the evening.
The show is set not in the Cornwall countryside, but in a lonely hearts nightclub, where the denizens decry their failure to find love. The club, placed on a small stand above the visually captivating set, creates a home for a small, versatile group of musicians who enhance the story. The performers, directed by Ian Ross, have little trouble moving convincingly between classical, jazz, show-tune, big band and rock music. And they are fronted by Whitehands (Carly Bawden), who sings, narrates and finally emerges as part of the story. But those who caught her singing the Patsy Cline hit "Crazy" before the show probably wouldn't mind spending a full evening just watching her perform.
In short, high praise is deserved by everyone involved with the show, from the cast to Rice to set designer Bill Mitchell, lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth and sound designer Gregory Clarke.
Contact Pat Craig at email@example.com.
By Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, adapted by Emma Rice and performed by Kneehigh Theatre Company
Through: Jan. 6
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
Running time: 2 hours, one intermission
Tickets: $17.50-$81; 510-647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org