BWW Reviews: A Dark and Timely THE LOVE OF THE NIGHTINGALE at Constellation Theatre
The world of Greek mythology is supposed to be romantic, all wine and laurel wreathes and frolics in the woods; but when we look more closely a bleaker landscape presents itself. From Homer's Troy onward we find human predators, crooks and murderers who boil children up and served them in stews ... and those are the good guys. And they always blame their actions on the gods, who-tellingly-are not about to let them off the hook, but who instead punish them for eternity.
Forget the gods-it's our fellow man we need to watch out for.
Constellation's spell-binding production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Love of the Nightingale may have an old-fashioned name or two, but it is as timely a production as you will see this year. Director Allison Arkell Stockman understands that Greek mythology, like tragedy itself, is a canvas upon which we paint our darkest fears and ponder their meaning. The play paints a complex picture in which victims, bystanders and perpetrators compete for the audience's sympathy; and with Constellation's consistently strong performances, the journey is one of the most thought- provoking I have seen this season.
Nightingale tells the story of Philomele, a young princess raped and then mutilated by her own brother-in-law; the rapist, King Tereus of Thrace, cuts out her tongue so she can never accuse him. The truth eventually emerges--in this production, through an ingenious puppet-play (designed here by Don Becker)--and a terrible revenge is exacted.
Although Philomele is eventually transformed into a nightingale (hence the play's title), Wertenbaker understands that Greeks didn't create the myth to explain where birds come from. Instead, the playwright assumes that myth was a way of confronting contemporary issues head-on, in this case warning against the power of unchecked lust and its horrific long-term consequences. Philomele's fate, as the front pages have reminded us for the past week, is as common on today's college campuses and military installations as in ancient times-and the struggle of modern victims for understanding, let alone justice, is as great as it ever was.
With a truly luminous performance Megan Dominy leads the cast as Philomele, who we see as a willful, inquisitive and tragically naïve young girl. Wertenbaker's genius lies in creating a scenario in which Philomele's virtues, so sympathetic, prove to be her undoing. But once she is assaulted, what is there to do? The playwright doesn't spare us but we are all implicated in the rationalizations and excuses made by both rapist and bystanders alike.
There are a number of other standout performances here; Edward Christian lends considerable gravitas-with a dose of wry wit-to numerous roles, most notably as King Pandion of Athens, Philomele's father. Dorea Schmidt toes a fine line as Philomele's sister Procne; forced to marry a foreign king and live in a dreary northern land, the truth of her sister's fate dawns on her slowly, but her revenge is as swift as it is brutal. Rena Cherry Brown gives a truly chilling turn as Niobe, one of those quaint servant-types whose worldly wisdom seems so charming at first; but in a cold-blooded monologue we witness her flip dismissal of Tereus' crime and her insistence on silence. And it's impossible to look away, because her Niobe speaks for so many, young and old, who have internalized male aggression and decided that mute acceptance of rape is the only way to survive.
As Tereus of Thrace, Matthew Schleigh grows on us; a rough northerner un-sifted in the ways of big-city Athenian culture, we later see a Tereus wily enough to use Greek mythology and even Greek tragedy (there is a play within the play) as a pretext for his crimes. Cold and calculating, he is a reminder (as if we needed one) of how easily the excuses flow when a man is determined to get what he wants. Ashley Ivey, meanwhile, gives us a truly sympathetic performance as the Captain on the ship that carries Philomele from Athens to her fate; admiration for the princess is mingled with his sense of duty (and his fear of retribution), and his quiet presence on-stage often resonates above the others.
The supporting cast is generally solid, with one special performance in Henry Niepoetter as Itys, the young son of King Tereus. The young Niepoetter's grit and determination mirror those of Dominy's princess Philomele and he is clearly up to the task; he isn't interested in our sympathy, either-a refreshing change from the cute and adorables that adult audiences are so often confronted with.
A. J. Guban has given us a spare setting, replete with wooden ramps and ramparts that remind us of the journey that lies at the heart of the play. Kelly King choreographs the cast in a series of choral dances, as simple as they are graceful, while Kenra Rai decks out the cast in suitable period gear, with a touch of fantasy thrown in. Joseph R. Walls' lights also make skillful use of the tighly-packed Source stage, creating more depth and variety than I would have thought possible. Tom Teasley, meanwhile, returns to Constellation's stage to add his magical touch, using a variety of acoustic and electronic gear to provide musical accompaniment and commentary on the action.
Although I feel the show would benefit from an intermission, the 100+ minutes generally move steadily and with purpose; Wertenbaker has a good sense of momentum, which Stockman manages to maintain throughout.
Advisory: Because of the show's mature content, parental discretion is advised. Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes without intermission. Performances are April 24-May 25 at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, Washington DC. Tickets can be ordered by calling 1-800-494-8497, or at www.ConstellationTheatre.org.
Pictured: Megan Dominy as Philomele and Ashley Ivey as the Captain. Photo by Stan Barouh.