Let’s get this out of the way: The Love of the Nightingale is a difficult, and at times brutal play. It is also incredibly smart, and often funny – and an example of Constellation Theatre Company at their best.
At first glance, Nightingale, directed by Alison Arkell Stockman, is just another version of the Philomele and Procne myth. Two sisters, daughters of the King and Queen of Athens (Edward Christian and Vanessa Bradchulis), are separated when Procne (Dorea Schmidt) is married to the Thracian king Tereus (Matthew Schleigh). Lonely in her new home, Procne sends her husband to bring Philomele (Megan Dominy) to visit. But Tereus falls in love with Philomele, and decides that marriage and consent shouldn’t be obstacles to a king. Tereus rapes Philomele and cuts out her tongue to prevent his crime from being revealed. In Ovid’s version of the tale, Philomele reveals the crime by sewing a tapestry; in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s version of the story, it’s a puppet show. The two women have their revenge on Tereus, and the three are turned into birds by the gods.
It would be easy to say that Wertenbaker’s play is about rape, but it’s not, not really. It’s about a rape, but at its heart the play is about two things: power and silence. Wertenbaker takes Ovid’s myth and uses it to lay bare a number of issues in modern culture. Wertenbaker examines the way that narratives shape a culture, and the links between physical and political power. The play also explores the way that the larger culture becomes complicit in or otherwise attempts to cover up abuses of power. Wertenbaker asks many questions, but avoids the trap of providing easy answers. Even Tereus is not the mustache-twirling villain that he could be, a victim of the narratives and culture that produced him while remaining unabsolved of his crimes. Wertenbaker’s Philomele is silenced not to hide her rape, but because she refuses to accept and be silent about it. Women’s voices are a legitimate threat to an abusive authority, and that cannot be allowed.
It’s tempting, when dealing with such a multilayered piece of literature, to spend the entire review talking about the play and not the production (guilty!). But the text is only half of the equation here, and Constellation steps up to the challenge. On the technical side, the set by A. J. Guban and lighting by Joseph R. Walls constitute an amazing feat of world-building. The mostly-open set provides a canvas for the cast to paint over, and combined with Kendra Rai’s costumes, there’s never a question of where the action has taken us. As for the music – it may be hyperbolic, but let’s just say that I scribbled “Tom Teasley = Grammy?” in the margin of my notes.
Nightingale isn’t an easy play to watch, especially in its final act. While the ensemble doesn’t have many standout performances, the cast’s ability to accomplish everything that is asked of them is nothing short of amazing. The group switches seamlessly from characters to chorus, from Athenians to Thracians, from realistically grounded action to impressionistic movement. The puppet show that anchors the final act – perhaps the most difficult moment in the play – is breathtaking in its technical proficiency and raw emotion (kudos to Puppet Designer Don Becker and Puppet Choreographer Eric Brooks). Constellation has always been adept at combining various art forms, but the company raises the bar here.
At almost two hours long with no intermission, the play drags towards the middle. But an intermission would have broken the momentum of the production and, to be honest, Philomele’s rape is brutal and honest enough that some of the audience might not make it back into the theatre. As the action picks up, so does the energy of the cast. The last half hour may be the hardest to watch, but it is also the most worthwhile.
I rarely feel that a review completely falls short of explaining a performance’s impact, but that’s happening here. So rather than fumble my way through more of the standard review, I’ll summarize: Constellation is at its best when the material is most challenging, and The Love of the Nightingale is the best kind of challenging. Allison Arkell Stockman has conjured a myth that, like the best fairy tales, teaches hard and uncomfortable lessons.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes long, with no intermission.