Centuries after its creation, Greek legend still has a remarkable power to affect us. The dreams and desires, fears and follies of those long-ago people in faraway places have stood the test of time astonishingly well, not least because, while circumstances may change, human nature does not.
Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Love of the Nightingale, a brilliant retelling of the rape of Philomele, lends yet another voice to that eternally evolving mythology. She has amalgamated and streamlined the essential elements of the legend into a vigorous script that speaks eloquently, ironically and often humorously to a contemporary audience.
University Theatre's production is a richly textured and ambitious foray into the complex world of Greek morality. Director Talish Barrow employs a mixture of traditional masked performance, Suzuki-inspired movement and gritty realism to unfold the captivating story.
Barrow is in the final year of his MFA directing program at UW-Madison and this is a commendably confident effort. He makes a few missteps along the way -- the production occasionally verges on Kabuki -- but these are the stumbles of inexperience, not inability.
The story of Philomele has been told in many guises by voices as varied as the Roman poet Ovid (Metamorphoses), Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus) and T.S. Eliot (The Waste Land). When the Thracian king Tereus (Andy Talen) conquers Athens he takes the princess Procne (Chelsea Stockhaus) as his wife before returning to his own kingdom. Procne longs to be reunited with her younger sister Philomele (Katie Olsen) and so Tereus agrees to return to Athens and escort Philomele back to Thrace.
During the voyage he rapes her and, to ensure her silence and his safety, cuts out her tongue. Philomele manages, however, to make her tragedy known and she and Procne exert a terrible revenge on Tereus.
Thanks to a simple, yet beautifully flexible scenic design (Dennis Dorn), atmospheric lighting (Greg Hofmann doing his typically sterling work) and imaginative costuming (William Curry) it is easy to overlook the generally flat quality of the acting. In its defense, this is a very young cast and there is, at least, a consistent level of performance. But overall the actors are competent, rather than compelling.
Nevertheless, this is a self-assured and intelligently staged production. It may not leave you as speechless as Philomele, but it will lift you up on the wings of its poetic imagination.
The Love of the Nightingale is presented by Hemsley Theatre, UW Vilas Hall through Nov. 1.