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stage review

A whimsical take on a storied romance in ArtsEmerson’s ‘Tristan & Yseult’

Yep, no question that Wagner would not be amused by “Tristan & Yseult.’’ But there was just no pleasing that guy.

As for the rest of us, we can settle in and (mostly) enjoy this production on its own larky terms.

A contemporized adaptation of the 12th century myth that formed the basis for “Tristan und Isolde,’’ Wagner’s hugely influential and hypnotic opera, “Tristan & Yseult’’ casts a very different kind of spell.

With its imaginative, sometimes uproarious blend of nightclub act, verse drama, dance, slapstick, and circus arts, this production by the British theater company Kneehigh unfolds like a party to which everyone is invited.


Yet a dreamlike eroticism is also very much part of the atmospheric mix in “Tristan & Yseult,’’ now at the Cutler Majestic Theatre under the auspices of ArtsEmerson. There are moments of throat-catching beauty in this tale of star-crossed lovers, especially in a finale that is a visually and aurally ravishing coup de theatre.

Directed and adapted by Emma Rice, with a script by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, “Tristan & Yseult’’ leans too often on infelicitous rhymes (“Fatherly love is all very well/But too much of it is a ticket to hell’’). Then again, words are not really the point here.

At times, the production overdoes the goofiness, its gag reflex undercutting the mood of escalating passion and lowering the emotional stakes. In the next moment, though, your expectations are subverted in a satisfying way, as when, for instance, a character who has hitherto served as comic relief delivers a surprisingly poignant soliloquy.

“Tristan & Yseult’’ is built on a love triangle consisting of the French Tristan, played by Dominic Marsh; the Irish Yseult, portrayed with grace and ardor by Hannah Vassallo; and the Cornish king, Mark, played by Stuart Goodwin.

That triangle begins to take shape in bloody circumstances. When the swaggering Irish king Morholt (Niall Ashdown) and his gangsterish henchmen invade Cornwall, a knife fight straight out of “West Side Story’’ ensues. A wounded Tristan kills Morholt, thereby earning the affection of King Mark.


As part of his conquest, the king resolves to marry Morholt’s sister, Yseult. He orders Tristan to bring her to Cornwall. Tristan finds her, and, sure enough, abetted by a love potion, zing go the strings of their hearts, and they embark on a passionate romance. But once they’re at Cornwall, Yseult finds herself captivated by King Mark, though her feelings for Tristan are not diminished. “Can I truly love two people?’’ she asks.

Thus does adultery — a potent theme from Greek tragedy to Pinter’s “Betrayal’’ and beyond — enter the picture. And of course cheating on a monarch is an especially high-risk proposition, especially when the lovers are being spied upon by Tristan’s ruthless rival, Frocin (Damon Daunno). Mystery surrounds one other figure: the statuesque, pillbox-hatted Whitehands, portrayed by Kirsty Woodward, whose place in the story is eventually revealed to be deeper than her narrator-commentator function.

Rice et. al. have taken pains to flesh out this central storyline with an array of characters who represent “the unloved,’’ the wide world of people to whom the doors of romance remain locked. Wearing black-framed glasses and knitted caps, they carry small notepads and peer through binoculars. Self-dubbed “the Love Spotters,’’ they form a forlornly amusing chorus. Most of the play’s action takes place on a raised, circular platform at center stage (the set design is by Bill Mitchell). Beneath a neon sign that reads “The Club of the Unloved,’’ an onstage band plays songs (“Only the Lonely,’’ “Dream Lover’’) that create a pleasantly wistful vibe while underscoring what a tricky business love can be.


But in this most un-Wagnerian work it is Wagner who ultimately has the last word, or the last notes: When the overwhelming music of “Tristan und Isolde’’ pours through the Cutler Majestic during the finale, the whimsy of “Tristan & Yseult’’ gives way to full-blown tragedy.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

Correction: The line “Fatherly love is all very well/But too much of it is a ticket to hell’’ was different in an earlier version of this article because the players changed the script in performance.