Rape. Mutilation. Vengeance. Borderline incest. The Love of the Nightingale has all the disturbing elements of a juicy Greek tragedy. Add tribal dancing, seductive lighting, and a soundtrack from the inimitable Tom Teasley, and Constellation Theatre Company adds enough of its own elements to make the myth its own.
In Nightingale, which has its roots in Sophocles and Ovid, war hero Tereus of Thrace (Matthew Schleigh) helps Athens win a war, and takes one of its princesses, Procne (Dorea Schmidt) to be his wife as one of his spoils of victory. She goes willingly, but begins to pine for her homeland and the companionship of her sister, Philomele (Megan Dominy). Tereus goes on a journey to bring Philomele to Thrace to keep her sister company, but becomes enchanted—too enchanted—by his sister-in-law’s beauty and vivacity. Things proceed brutally from there.
Director Allison Arkell Stockman takes some efforts to shield the audience from the play’s violence—a rape happens offstage, and fight choreography leans more artsy than realistic. But The Love of the Nightingale still has graphic and disturbing elements. A bloodstained dress makes for an eerie visual. One of the play’s creepiest moments is actually the result of a dispassionate monologue from Niobe (Rena Cherry Brown), a cynical servant who has reached old age. Niobe runs through her philosophy of world-weary acceptance while knowing her mistress is being violated elsewhere; it’s a jolting scene delivered with assuredness by Brown.
Nightingale’s other most commanding performance comes from Schmidt, who creates a layered portrait of the duty-bound but dissatisfied Procne. Schmidt gives Procne a strength of character that becomes more pronounced as the princess slowly finds her bearings in the foreign land of Thrace. The show’s chorus players tend to be less subtle and deliver more melodramatic performances, which aren’t necessarily out of place here but prove less interesting to watch.
Stockman’s production artfully weaves song, puppetry, and dance throughout the proceedings. Given the bare-bones set, the costumes tend to be the visual star; intricate masks mark characters’ transition from human to animal (they also play double duty, marking the show’s play within a play), and flowing, lush ensembles evoke the tale’s Greek roots. The play has a lot of ground to cover in nearly two hours, and stretches the limits of its no-intermission pacing. Enlivening it all is Teasley, whose energetic mastery of percussion and wind instruments is always thrilling to see in action.
The Love of the Nightingale is at Constellation Theatre through May 25. Running time is about 110 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($35 to $45) are available through Constellation’s website.