“It’s similar to a lot of productions that we’ve done.” Allison Arkell Stockman was talking about the current production at Constellation Theatre Company, The Love of the Nightingale. Stockman is Constellation’s Founding Artistic Director and is the director of its current offering.
So what about this play hits that Constellation sweet spot? “It’s a myth,” Stockman told me, “and it has an epic adventure story.” The story is from a non-extant play by Sophocles that was retold by Ovid and is here adapted by a contemporary British playwright who brings a “strong feminist perspective.”
That playwright, Timberlake Wertenbaker, is best known in this country for Our Country’s Good, which was an Off-Broadway hit in the 1990s and was done here by Signature Theatre in one of its early seasons. Constellation is best known in this city for shows that involve, in Stockman’s words, “non-realistic, imaginative design.”
“We haven’t set it in a particular time period,” Stockman continued. “It has an ancient, contemporary, and futuristic feel. The language itself is elevated and poetic, with a lot of witty parts. There is opportunity in the script for heightened movement and dance. The script welcomes dance.” She added that they ended up with strong singers in the cast and so they “incorporated other moments of song, non-verbal song in the play. It helps express emotion in a way that’s beyond words.”
Wertenbaker, Stockman told me, writes about “the importance of telling myths in the play. The Chorus talks about that. There is a point at which the Chorus members say, ‘You will be inside myth. If we could paraphrase myth, why would we trouble to show it to you?’ Ideas are communicated through image, sound, and movement.” They aren’t expressed in language alone, she said. This play in particular, and this type of play in general, presents the opportunity to “transform people from everyday life to something a little larger than life.”
Constellation is also well known for its collaborations with Tom Teasley, the musician who plays live accompaniment and has won several Helen Hayes awards for his work at Constellation. This is Teasley’s eleventh Constellation show and the first time he has recorded a CD of his score. “It’s the best, richest aural experience we’ve ever produced,” she said, pointing out that the score involves both recorded and live music. “He’s such a terrific guy,” she observed about her collaborator, “so generous, so smart.”
About another collaborator, Fight Director Matthew R. Wilson, Stockman was similarly full of praise. “He’s done a fabulous job. It’s the most violent show we’ve ever done. The first word in the script is ‘war.’ What Wertenbaker is doing is saying that plays allow us to process the dark, inner, uncomfortable folds within the human heart. People have dark passions. This play literally asks the question, ‘What makes torturers smile?’”
The play tells the story of the warrior Tereus, his marriage to Procne, and his rape of Procne’s sister Philomele, and Stockman stressed the importance to the story of Tereus’ experience as a soldier. “We see Tereus not as a villain but as a complex human being. We send people to war and expect that they will do cruel, violent things and then be able to return to society and play by peacetime rules. If he wasn’t a warrior, he wouldn’t end up raping her, cutting out her tongue. Rape in real life is about violence and power and is used, unfortunately, as a tool in war, and a way to suppress women…people, rather.”
Stockman elaborated: “When we see Philomele after the rape, she goes through so many different stages of reaction, we see the impact.” A particularly moving moment in the play for Stockman is a monologue by one of Philomele’s attendants, who speaks of hearing the rape but not acting to stop it “because, as a slave, she has experienced rape throughout her life.”
Stockman cited the play as an example of theatre’s potential to allow us to process what is awful in the world and forge beauty from the ugly: “Another really cool thing about the play is that it celebrates the power of the performing arts to transform lives, so there’s this ceremonial, stylized performance of Phaedra near the end, a puppet show within a wild Bacchanalian frenzy on the street. People who love theatre will love the theatricality of this piece.”
THE LOVE OF THE NIGHTINGALE
Closes May 25, 2014
Constellation Theatre at
1835 14th Street, NW
2 hours, no intermission
Tickets: $15 – $45
Thursdays thru Sundays
Looking ahead to next season
Since the end of this theatrical season is almost here, we had the chance to look ahead to what Constellation will be doing next year, its eighth season. The 2014-15 season will begin with Absolutely! [perhaps], the play by Luigi Pirandello in an English adaptation by Martin Sherman, the British playwright best known for Bent. The play, which Stockman will direct, is almost one hundred years old (it was written in 1917), but, she said, is “very smart and funny and incredibly relevant. It’s about the right of the public to know about private lives. It’s about the wildfire of gossip and speculation and how it is impossible to know the truth about another person.”
Next up is The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh (and not to be confused with his other play, The Cripple of Inishmaan, which is currently packing them in on Broadway in a revival starring Daniel Radcliffe). “I think it’s a great play, very funny in a dark, black way, but with a greater message about how ridiculous and destructive violence can be in modern times.” Referring to Matthew R. Wilson, the aforementioned Fight Director of the current production who will direct it, she said that it “plays to Matt’s strengths. He’s an expert in violence but also has a great head for comedy.” Wilson is Founding Artistic Director of Faction of Fools Theatre Company, the local troupe that focuses on commedia dell’arte.
A big hit for Constellation was the Sanskrit epic The Ramayana, which was so popular during the company’s third season that they remounted it in the fifth season. Stockman will close next season by directing The Fire and the Rain by Girish Karnad, whom she calls “the most famous playwright in India.” The play is taken from an episode in the other major Sanskrit epic, The Mahabharata, and is the story of a “young man who falls in love outside of his own caste. He wants to be an actor but is forbidden to because he is a Brahmin.”
“We’ve been saying, ‘Take a trip to Italy, Ireland, and India.’ We’re excited about it because the season comes from all different parts of the world. There’s something for everyone. People should subscribe!”
Indeed, people should subscribe. Stockman called Constellation subscriptions “the best deal in town” and noted that the series of three productions costs only $90. You can pay more than that for one ticket at some of the larger non-profit theaters in town. Constellation offers subscriber benefits, including the best seats in the house and one free companion ticket per season. Season six at Constellation (the last season for which statistics are fully in) ran at 97% capacity. That meant a lot of people who wanted to see certain performances couldn’t because all of the seats were sold. A subscription insures that you won’t miss the Constellation boat, which is heading again this year to India after stops in Italy and Ireland. All aboard!