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Much to love about The Love of the Nightingale

By Beck Holden

Section: Arts

December 7, 2007

The Free Play Theatre Cooperative wrapped up its Fall 2007 season last week with Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale, directed by Rebecca Webber ’08.

The play is immensely challenging, both intellectually and emotionally, dealing with weighty matters such as rape, violence, and silence; however, Webber, the actors, and the designers met and exceeded that challenge. The result was one of the best (and perhaps even the single best) undergraduate productions presented at Brandeis in the three and a half years I have been here.

The play is a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Philomele. At the start of the play, Procne (Kara Manson ’08), the older sister of Philomele (Allison Vanouse ’09), is given in marriage by her father, King Pandion of Athens (Hank Lin ’10), to King Tereus of Thrace (Dmitri Papadimitriou ’09), whose aid helped secure victory for Athens in war.

After five lonely years in Thrace, Procne sends her husband to bring her younger sister to Thrace to keep her company. Tereus does as he is asked, but quickly falls for Philomele. He refuses to return to Thrace on the pretense of danger, jealously kills the virtuous captain (Mohit Gourisaria ’09) that Philomele has fallen for, and rapes her. Tereus finally cuts out Philomele’s tongue to keep her silent, telling Procne that Philomele died when he finally does returns to Thrace.

Five years later, Procne finds Philomele during a night of Bacchic revelry, and the play hastens towards its tragic and troubling conclusion.

What Wertenbaker does so beautifully as a playwright is weave this myth into a play that is an exploration of silence. Long before Philomele is forcibly silenced, the play is rife with comments about choosing silence.

Procne, lonely in her new home of Thrace where she has not adapted to the local culture, repeatedly wonders, “Where have the words gone?” The male chorus constantly makes the point that they are observers to the tale, not meant to interfere, and after Tereus murders the captain they declare, “we saw nothing.” As Philomele is being raped offstage, her servant Niobe (Julia Broder ’08) tells the audience, “I saw things coming, but it was useless to warn her.”

This choice of silence appears in nearly every key character in the play, leading up to the central rape. In the post-show talkback, Webber summed up her thoughts on this relationship between silence and sexual violence quite succinctly; “if you’re not hearing about it, it is still happening. And if we’re not talking about it, we’re allowing it to keep happening.”

It is a rarity to see an undergraduate production so replete with excellent performances as this one. The sheer range of the ever-compelling Vanouse’s performance as Philomele was a marvel, from the wild, sensual, passionate creature she is at the start, to the girl troubled and scared by Tereus’s behavior, to the intense, silent, nearly-motionless shell of her former self that she becomes after being brutally violated and silenced.

Papadimitriou gave a powerful performance as the strong, intense King Tereus and was tremendously successful at preserving the humanity of a man who could easily appear to be a monster, given his actions within the play. Manson, with her radiantly warm and compassionate turn as Procne, simply lit up the stage in her few scenes with a lighter tone and was entirely engrossing in her earnest struggle with the difficult decisions her character makes.

Julia Broder ’08, after easily filling the role of the graceful, regal Queen of Athens early in the show, turned in a similarly high-caliber performance in her meatier role as Niobe, Philomele’s servant. From the beginning she looked, moved, and even sounded a little like she had walked out of a Monty Python sketch into the play.

However, the performance proved far deeper than her comic delivery—the character is later revealed to have also been a rape victim, and from the point of this revelation the depth and nuances of Broder’s portrayal of a well-meaning, nostalgic, and eminently practical woman became clear.

Alex Fleming ’09 and Samuel Zelitch ’09, as a pair of clownish soldiers, provided riotous comic relief, which also helped to underscore the severity of the happenings around them. Austin Auh ‘10, as Itys, the young son of Procne and Tereus, exuded youthful energy and single-mindedness, handling the challenge of playing such a young character very well.

The design of the show was somewhat minimalist and highly effective; the set (designed by Aaron Arbiter ’10) was essentially an empty black stage with a couple of white clotheslines bearing white sheets, a couple of boxes sometimes brought out as seats, and a couple white sheets used to create a stream or cover from time to time. As a whole it was simple and elegant, and it worked very well.

The costuming (Netalie Matalon ’11) featured an interesting movement from white to black; at the start Tereus was in black and the sisters in white, but after falsely hearing of her sister’s death Procne remains in black the rest of the show, and after her reunion with her sister Philomele also finally dons black. This was a very effective manifestation of the taint Tereus brought to their lives.

Much like the aforementioned elements, lighting (Eli Matzner ’08) was fairly simple—a general lighting of the entire stage, with lights set up on the aisles of the side sections innovatively providing a little extra coloring to scenes. The sound design (Samson Kohanski ’08), especially the ominous drums music underscoring key scenes leading up to the rape and silencing, was very successful at heightening the tension at critical points within the play.

All in all, The Love of the Nightingale was a simply phenomenal production. Excellent performances, strong design work, and high-caliber direction melded together into something beautiful, moving, thought-provoking, and deeply troubling, an engrossing emotional journey that left the audience with a lot to think about. In short, it was everything great theatre can be.

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