courtesy photoAndrew Durand and Patrycja Kujawska play the title roles in the West Coast premiere of Kneehigh’ Theatre’s “Tristan & Yseult.”

courtesy photoAndrew Durand and Patrycja Kujawska play the title roles in the West Coast premiere of Kneehigh’ Theatre’s “Tristan & Yseult.”

Wild, wacky love in Kneehigh’s ‘Tristan & Yseult’

Love hurts in “Tristan & Yseult.” It’s also playful, exuberant, erotic, silly and amazingly acrobatic.

Kneehigh Theatre is back, and the acclaimed British company — which has already introduced the Bay Area to its productions of “Brief Encounter” and “The Wild Bride” — has brought its latest theatrical creation to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

“Tristan & Yseult” may be based on the 12th-century Cornish myth about a pair of ill-fated lovers — the same story that inspired Wagner’s opera, “Tristan und Isolde” — but this production, adapted and directed by Emma Rice and receiving its West Coast premiere in the Rep’s Roda Theatre, is something wholly original: a wonderful mashup of artifice and whimsy.

Rice sets the show in a louche nightspot called The Club of the Unloved.

A four-piece band, positioned on the top tier of Bill Mitchell’s multilevel set, plays mambo and reggae, rowdy rock and wistful standards (“Only the Lonely” sets the tone, and music from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” makes a brief appearance).

A chorus of “Lovespotters” roams the theater with binoculars and notepads, clowning relentlessly while looking for the love they can never expect to find.

The script, by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, strikes a rare balance of pain and bliss, tragic intensity and broad humor. There’s deep feeling under every funny bit.

Yet love, in Rice’s world, is for the exalted few — Yseult, promised to King Mark, and Tristan, the man who steals her away.

This story of “blood and fire” can only end one way, but before it flames out, it brings several stunning theatrical coups — a whirling Act 1 dance fueled by a love potion, with the lovers suspended from ropes, and an illicit Act 2 tryst on the night of Yseult’s marriage.

If the story occasionally seems engulfed in shtick, the cast carries it with sheer verve. Patrycja Kujawska, the unforgettable lead of Berkeley Rep’s “Wild Bride,” radiates heat as Yseult.

Andrew Durand plays Tristan as a swaggering Gallic love god. Craig Johnson makes an imposing Morholt, then nearly steals the show as Yseult’s hilarious servant, Brangian. Carly Bawden exudes breezy glamour as Whitehands. Giles King plays Frocin as a venomous paparazzi, and Mark Shepherd invests King Mark with surprising depth.

Rice keeps ramping up the narrative, giving the show a fitting twist in its final moments. Love will always hurt, but here it keeps you guessing until the end.

REVIEW

Tristan & Yseult

Presented by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Where: 2015 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. most Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Jan. 6

Tickets: $29 to $99

Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.orgartsBerkeley Repertory TheatreKneehigh TheatreTristan & Yseult

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Although The City has been shut down and largely empty, people have enjoyed gathering in places such as Dolores Park. <ins>(Al Saracevic/The Examiner)</ins>
Come back to San Francisco: The City needs you now

Time to get out of the house, people. The City’s been lonely… Continue reading

A surveillance camera outside Macy’s at Union Square on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Is the tide turning against surveillance cameras in SF?

Crime-fighting camera networks are springing up in commercial areas all around San… Continue reading

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott speaks alongside Mayor London Breed at a news conference about 2019 crime statistics at SFPD headquarters on Jan. 21, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
What the media gets wrong about crime in San Francisco

By Lincoln Mitchell Special to The Examiner Seemingly every day now, you… Continue reading

Vice President Kamala Harris is under fire for her comments in Guatemala earlier this week. (Examiner file photo.)
SF immigration advocates slam Kamala Harris’ ‘betrayal’ to her past

Kamala Harris’ comments earlier this week discouraging Central Americans from traveling to… Continue reading

Youth activists with the Sunrise Movement march along a rural road during their two-week trek from Paradise to San Francisco to call attention to an increase in deadly wildfires as a result of climate change on June 2, 2021. (Photo by Brooke Anderson)
Weeks-long climate march culminates on the Golden Gate Bridge

Lola’s alarm goes off most mornings before dawn. The 17-year-old high school… Continue reading

Most Read