Kneehigh Theatre is back, and the acclaimed British company — which has already introduced the Bay Area to its productions of “Brief Encounter” and “The Wild Bride” — has brought its latest theatrical creation to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
“Tristan & Yseult” may be based on the 12th-century Cornish myth about a pair of ill-fated lovers — the same story that inspired Wagner’s opera, “Tristan und Isolde” — but this production, adapted and directed by Emma Rice and receiving its West Coast premiere in the Rep’s Roda Theatre, is something wholly original: a wonderful mashup of artifice and whimsy.
Rice sets the show in a louche nightspot called The Club of the Unloved.
A four-piece band, positioned on the top tier of Bill Mitchell’s multilevel set, plays mambo and reggae, rowdy rock and wistful standards (“Only the Lonely” sets the tone, and music from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” makes a brief appearance).
A chorus of “Lovespotters” roams the theater with binoculars and notepads, clowning relentlessly while looking for the love they can never expect to find.
The script, by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, strikes a rare balance of pain and bliss, tragic intensity and broad humor. There’s deep feeling under every funny bit.
Yet love, in Rice’s world, is for the exalted few — Yseult, promised to King Mark, and Tristan, the man who steals her away.
This story of “blood and fire” can only end one way, but before it flames out, it brings several stunning theatrical coups — a whirling Act 1 dance fueled by a love potion, with the lovers suspended from ropes, and an illicit Act 2 tryst on the night of Yseult’s marriage.
If the story occasionally seems engulfed in shtick, the cast carries it with sheer verve. Patrycja Kujawska, the unforgettable lead of Berkeley Rep’s “Wild Bride,” radiates heat as Yseult.
Andrew Durand plays Tristan as a swaggering Gallic love god. Craig Johnson makes an imposing Morholt, then nearly steals the show as Yseult’s hilarious servant, Brangian. Carly Bawden exudes breezy glamour as Whitehands. Giles King plays Frocin as a venomous paparazzi, and Mark Shepherd invests King Mark with surprising depth.
Rice keeps ramping up the narrative, giving the show a fitting twist in its final moments. Love will always hurt, but here it keeps you guessing until the end.
Tristan & Yseult
Presented by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. most Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Jan. 6
Tickets: $29 to $99
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org