The attempt to make ancient mythology resonate with a modern audience comes with a unique set of challenges. But Theater Vertigo brings a deft, post-modern sensibility to the issue with The Love of the Nightingale, a retelling of the myth of Philomele.
The myth goes as follows: After the Thracian army saves Athens, the Thracian king, Tereus (Jason Maniccia), wants only one thing in return: the beautiful Procne (Jen Healey) to be his bride. When Procne arrives in Thrace, she realizes that the mystical Thracians are nothing like the eloquent, logical Athenians she's used to. Desperate for companionship, she requests that Tereus go to Athens to bring back her younger sister, Philomele (Amanda Soder). While in Athens, Tereus falls in love with the passionate Philomele, and he deliberately delays their return in an attempt to win her love. When she rejects him, he rapes her; when she threatens to tell her sister what he's done, he silences her by cutting out her tongue. This horrifying act of violence is one of the most disturbing, engaging moments of theater I've seen in this town—Amanda Soder is vivid and enchanting as Philomele, with a charm that makes her downfall all the more wrenching.
But lest the audience get too involved, the versatile male chorus is on hand to remind us that this is, in fact, only a myth. There's plenty of self-reference and vaguely ironic humor here, which balances tensely with the fiercely compelling performances of the main players. It is this juxtaposition of irony and sincerity, captured perfectly by Vertigo, that is key to the show's success.
Other elements barely intrude on this dynamic. The low-budget set consists of a moody grayish background painted to resemble waves or mountain peaks, and a few movable pieces. This simplicity ensures that there's nothing onstage (except for a few puzzlingly busy costumes, which seemed to involve wine corks and crumpled duct tape) to distract from the production's real strength: how wisely and effectively this cast, and director Camille Cettina, have interpreted a powerful and thought-provoking script.