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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.