Don't be turned off by the source material, a Medieval romance that has inspired everything from a Wagnerian opera to a film starring James Franco. Love in all its passion and pain is at the center of the British-based Kneehigh Theatre's production of Tristan and Yseult, currently at South Coast Repertory on its U.S. tour of regional theaters. But there is nothing saccharin or old-school about this marvelous production. It approaches the lofty realm of fine art while never losing its grip on the base concept of just having fun.
Director Emma Rice (who adapted the piece with writers Anna Marie Murphy and Carl Grose) has created a rambunctious show that is riddled with trademark British sardonic wit and Monty Python-like silliness. The story — boy meets girl, they fall in love, all hell breaks loose — may play out on battlefields in Cornwall and Ireland, but it's actually set in the bowels of the Club of the Unloved. There, a live band and chorus, all dressed in a weird but appealing blend of period and modern costumes, create and satirize the proceedings — making sure to include the audience as often as possible.
The genius of Rice's vision is that every time the charm seems as if it might wear off, or things may bog down in sap, the gears shift, either into sobering poignancy or another burst of frenetic activity, usually involving some kind of dance, be it ballet, Latin salsa or breakdancing. It's as intoxicating as any tragic love affair worth its weight in anguish, and ecstasy, should be.
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South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; through Feb. 22. (714) 708-5555, scr.org.
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