Constellation Theatre Company The Love of the NightingaleBy Bob Ashby • May 5th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Constellation Theatre Company: (Info) (Web)
Source Theatre, Washington DC
Through May 25th
1:55 without intermission
Reviewed May 2nd, 2014
Silence = Death. The famous slogan of the AIDS activist group ACT UP could serve as an epigraph for Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale, given a terrifyingly beautiful performance by the Constellation Theatre Company. Based on a tragedy by Sophocles, of which only fragments have survived, and a treatment by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Wertenbaker’s 1988 play considers the role of voluntary and coerced silence in enabling cruelty and oppression and, ultimately, in leading to further atrocity.
The play begins and ends in violence. Soldiers fight to the death in the opening scene, the fight choreography by Matthew Wilson bringing to mind the combat scenes of “The Illiad.” Tereus (Matthew Schleigh), King of Thrace, receives as the reward of his victory the hand of Procne (Dorea Schmidt), daughter of the King of Athens. Schmidt’s deer-in-the-headlights shock as she dutifully submits to a political marriage is the first of many silences that mark the play.
After five years and a baby in what seem to her the lonely cultural wasteland of Thrace, Procne longs for the company of her younger sister Philomele (Meagan Dominy), and Tereus goes to Athens to fetch her. They view a performance of the Phaedra story, with the actors skillfully wearing beautiful and intricate theatrical masks. They touch, Philomele innocently and Tereus with what he recognizes as desire. On the voyage back to Thrace, Tereus delays the ship’s arrival; when Philomele rejects his advances, he kills the captain (Ashley Ivey), who Philomele has begun to love, and carries off the girl and rapes her. He is the King and has the power do all he wants.
The ship’s crewmembers are aware of all this: Tereus’s lust for Philomele, the murder of their captain, the abduction and rape. But they say nothing and pretend to see nothing. Their job is to follow orders, nothing more. When Tereus stonewalls their tentative questions, they meekly comply. Meanwhile, Philomele’s servant, Niobe (Rena Cherry Brown), an older woman who laments her loss of allure, speaks with cynical despair of the powerlessness of women. Philomele must accept the rape and, perhaps, try to gain what advantage she can from the situation. She must keep silent in the face of Tereus’ power; certainly she must not protest.
But Philomele will not remain silent. She ridicules the King to his face about his weakness and promises to proclaim to the world what a fool he is. At first, Tereus repeats what must be a familiar refrain to victims of sexual violence everywhere: why speak up, when no one will believe you against my words? When she continues to speak, he takes action to silence her voice once and for all, cutting out her tongue in one of the most horrifying scenes one is likely to see on stage. It is commonplace to talk of actors being committed to a role or a scene: the commitment of Schleigh and Dominy to the brutality of this scene is well beyond what most actors are ever asked to do.
What is to become of the speechless girl? She languishes in Thrace (Tereus has told Procne that her sister died on the voyage) for years. Wishing to contact Procne and convince her of her husband’s crimes, she seizes on the mechanism of a puppet play (the puppets, designed and choreographed by Don Becker and Eric Brooks, respectively, are a marvel), reenacting her rape and mutilation. In the midst of a drunken festival, Procne sees and, after some initial reluctance, believes. The two women take a Medea-like revenge on Tereus. Again, members of the ensemble observe a killing but resolve to say nothing and deny seeing anything.
The quality of the acting is extraordinary throughout. Schleigh’s King is a shallow, unthinking creature who typifies the arrogance of power, unable to face those he has wronged. Schmidt’s Procne tries, but never quite succeeds, to assimilate to the foreign world of Thrace, and when her illusions about her husband and her life with him are shattered, responds with an extreme of violence. Brown’s Niobe proclaims her hard-earned wisdom as a woman who knows what the world is like, but becomes instead a collaborator in the silence that imprisons Philomele and herself, almost satisfied to see Philomele punished the transgression Niobe had warned her against. Dominy’s Philomele has the longest and hardest journey, from innocent girl to adventurer to lover to rape victim (seldom has the nature of rape as a crime of power been portrayed more clearly) to dissident to sufferer of a horror to cruel avenger. Every step on her path is utterly convincing. In smaller roles, Ivey as the warm captain and Henry Niepoetter as Tereus’ unpleasant apprentice warrior of a son make their mark as well.
The ensemble, whether as soldiers, sailors, women of the court, or revelers at a festival, play their parts with flair, moving smartly to Kelly King’s choreography, above all in the bacchanal scene, as merriment mixes with the dread created by Philomele’s puppet show. To an extent, they play the traditional role of the Greek chorus, but they more importantly portray members of a society who, by choosing not to notice and speak, become accomplices in the crimes of the powerful.
The gold-colored foil-covered walls of scenic designer A.J. Guban’s set, which largely surrounds the oblong playing area, create a glittery world of splendor, the world that those in power wish society to see and be dazzled by. Augmented by Joseph Wall’s lighting design, which features many reds, the floor — shiny black planks with red spaces in between — evokes the dark and bloody underpinnings of a society based on the arbitrary exercise of power.
Kendra Rai’s costumes for the ensemble convey the multiple roles that its members play: those for the revelers in the festival scene, white costumes seemingly doused in wine, were especially colorful. Without attempting to be fixed in a given historical period, the costumes for the principals as well as those for the ensemble create the impression of characters living in the distant past of classical myth while confronting very contemporary issues.
Constellation, which makes something of a specialty of plays based on classical and world myths (their Metamorphoses a few years ago was noticeably superior to Arena Stage’s larger subsequent production, for example), has developed a fruitful relationship with musician Tom Teasley. Teasley provides the soundscape for Nightingale, with percussion and wind instrumentation helping to create the impression of the mythical world while responding to the emotions of each scene.
Without losing its roots in classical myth, the play has even greater resonance today than when it opened in 1988. What, after all, do the powerful seek? To do their will, with the role of the rest of society being quiet compliance. When torture, assassination, and sweeping collection of private information become state policy, treat those who publicize official conduct as criminals. When there is widespread criticism of a government on the internet and social media, censor or shut down electronic communications (the Turkish government’s recent attempt to pull to plug on Twitter comes to mind). In a more private sphere, silence is golden to those in positions of family or institutional power who sexually abuse children. Speaking up is dangerous, but what other choice is there but complicity? Not easy choices, but issues made vivid in this stunning production.
I welcome you on this voyage to a foreign land in an unspecified time that feels at once ancient and modern. I have loved this play from the first time I read it over a decade ago. With opportunities for singing and dancing, romance and violence, sacrifice and transcendence, there are moments all over the emotional spectrum. A classical story created first by Sophocles, and then transformed by Ovid in Metamorphoses, is re-imagined by the brilliant Olivier Award-winning playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker.
This myth is a vehicle for us to express and process the darkest desires of the human heart. It is a complex world in which both love and violence are beautiful and terrifying. Tereus, the King of Thrace, is a war hero who has liberated Athens by conquering the invading army. His physical prowess and steely courage are celebrated, but when violent tendencies emerge later we find ourselves condemning the warrior we once adored. Wertenbaker gives us glimmering moments of love, both familial and romantic. The strength of the sisters’ bond drives the play. The romance between Philomele and the Captain allows them to feel “the gods within us.” Yet, the god of love can also be cruel, even merciless, fueling a fiery passion that can be all-consuming.
The women in this play are vivid and varied; they are all survivors finding their way in a world dominated by men. Philomele’s quest to know the world, to gain experiences, to embrace her inner longings, and to bravely ask questions is both inspirational and dangerous. We watch Procne evolve from a frightened young woman to a brave and decisive queen. Niobe, a lowly servant, offers years of wisdom and advice that is both shrewd and disturbing. Classical tales so often revolve around men; it is riveting to gain the perspective of a female playwright and all the women she has brought to life.
The Love of the Nightingale celebrates the power of the performing arts to transform lives and to communicate through image, movement and music as well as words. The King of Athens tells us, “I find plays help me think. You catch a phrase, recognize a character.” Wertenbaker gives us a ceremonial court drama as well as a freewheeling puppet show. The collective energy of a large ensemble is harnessed with the chorus. Magical transformations allow for redemption and forgiveness in a way that is uniquely theatrical. This play allows us to tap into the imagination of the ancients, yet it also calls on us to see the reflection of the action in our own world today.
I hope you will enjoy the story before you and that you will return to Constellation next year as a subscriber. Our 2014-2015 Season offers an exciting selection of plays from Italy, Ireland, and India. Come with us as we embark on our vibrant exhilarating journey!
Photos by Stan Barouh
- People of Athens
- Philomele: Megan Dominy
- Procne: Dorea Schmidt
- King Pandion: Edward Christian
- Queen: Vanessa Brandchulis
- Niobe: Rena Cherry Brown
- Athenian Soldier: Bru Ajueyitsi
- The Enemy
- Barbarian Soldier: Daniel Corey
- People of Thrace
- King Tereus: Matthew Schleigh
- Itys: Henry Niepoetter
- Captain: Ashley Ivey
- Sailors/Soldiers: Bru Ajueyitsi, Edward Christian, Daniel Corey
- Hero: Jennifer J. Hopkins
- Iris: Emma Jackson
- June: Vanessa Bradchulis
- Helen: Neelam Patel
- Servant: Edward Christian
- Actors in the Hippolytus Play
- Aphrodite: Jennifer J. Hopkins
- King Theseus: Daniel Corey
- Phaedra: Neelam Patel
- Hippolytus: Bru Ajueyitsi
- Nurse: Emma Jackson
- Chorus: Daniel Corey, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Ashley Ivey, Emma Jackson
- Director: Allison Arkell Stockman
- Scenic Designer: A.J. Guban
- Musician and Composer: Tom Teasley
- Costume Designer: Kendra Rai
- Assistant Costume Designer: Courtney Wood
- Lighting Designer: Joseph R. Walls
- Fight Director: Matthew R. Wilson
- Dance & Movement Choreographer: Kelly King
- Associate Sound Designer: Adam W. Johnson
- Props Designer: Angela Plante
- Puppet Designer: Don Becker
- Puppet Choreographer: Eric Brooks
- Stage Manager: Cheryl Ann Gnerlich
- Assistant Stage Managers: Brett Steven Abelman, Daniel Mori
- Production Assistant: James Brown
- Assistant Director: Gwen Grastorf
- Second Costume Assistant: Sara Jane Palmer
- Stitcher: Sandy Smoker
- Mask Builder and Intern: Sara Tomaszewski
- Costume Crafts: Chris Hall
- Dramaturg: Maddie Gaw
- Technical Director: Jason Krznarich
- Assistant Technical Director: William Klemt
- Charge Artist: Pallas Bane
- Carpenters: Walter Berry, Leanne Bock
- Master Electrician: Alex Keen
- Electricians: Paul Callaghan, Jeny Hall, Molly Scrivens, Gordon Nimno Smith, J. Cody Whitfield
- Sound Engineer: Jim Robeson
- Sound Board Operator: Alec Henneberger
- Associate Lighting Designer: Lesley Boeckman
- Audience Services Manager: Lindsey Ruehl
- House Managers: Erin Gifford, Ginny Page
Disclaimer: Constellation Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10400.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.