‘The Love of the Nightingale’: Constellation masters Greek tragedy again

Philomele (Megan Dominy) and the Captain (Ashley Ivey) in Constellation Theatre's
Philomele (Megan Dominy) and the Captain (Ashley Ivey) in Constellation Theatre's "The Love of the Nightingale." (Credit: Stan Brouh)

WASHINGTON, May 10, 2014 – Now playing at the Source, the Constellation Theatre Company’s tense, kinetic and insightful new production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “The Love of the Nightingale” further cements this small company’s already sterling reputation for linking ancient Greek history, poetry and drama to the moral dilemmas of today.

“Nightingale” is based on the history and mythology surrounding the lives of royal Athenian sisters Procne and Philomele and their ultimately tragic involvement with their Athenian frenemy, King Tereus of Thrace.

Rescuing the Athenians and their King Pandion I, from certain military defeat, Tereus wins Pandion’s elder daughter Procne as his wife, and carries her off to his home country as his queen. Meanwhile, back in Athens, Procne’s younger sister Philomele is bereft without her older sibling, who also happens to be her best friend.

After a time, Philomele is permitted to travel to Thrace, under Tereus’ protection, to visit Procne. But that’s where the trouble begins. The Thracian warrior-king has a brutal, wandering eye, which ultimately leads to high and bloody tragedy.

Wertenbaker based her 1989 stage play on this ancient story’s treatment by Roman poet Ovid in his famous “Metamorphoses”—a treatment that in turn was indebted to an earlier Greek play by Sophocles.

Wertenbaker’s drama nonetheless embraces many ancient Greek elements including character types, masks, dances, and the always hovering chorus, the voice of common wisdom providing moral commentary on the twists and tragic turns of human lives when they intersect with the gods and with each other.

While ancient audiences may have focused more on the core concepts of honor and hubris, however, Wertenbaker, without needing to stretch things too much, subtly reweaves the strands of this tale, fashioning instead a dramatic, feminist tapestry that indicts what she views as persistent 20th century racism and rape subcultures as well as the always malleable relativism inherent in contemporary power politics.

Frequently, a play that takes this route will degenerate into overt propaganda. Wertenbaker largely resists the urge, however, burnishing what’s already embedded within the ancient story while transforming it in a remarkable way, morphing it into a 20th—and indeed a 21st—century morality tale.

Her primary transformational vehicle is the character of younger sister Philomele, portrayed with great skill in this production by Megan Dominy.

Philomele (Megan Dominy) in a happier moment. (Credit: Stan Brough)
Philomele (Megan Dominy) in a happier moment. (Credit: Stan Brough)

Talkative, inquisitive, self-assured, highly intelligent yet affectionate and forthcoming, Wertenbaker’s—and Dominy’s—Philomele is a recognizably contemporary woman. She’s therefore out of place in this ancient Greek environment. But her tragedy is that she remains largely unaware of that fact which leads to the play’s central moral tragedy as well as her own more personal one.

This Philomele is someone we know, leading us to wonder why, somehow, she’s so special, so exceptional in her own contemporary environment, even if we’re thoroughly acquainted with ancient history. And in the end, Philomele wonders herself. We’re all led to ask: what’s wrong with this seemingly normal picture that such horrendous things could happen to a lively, intelligent young woman like this one?

The answers, of course, at least in a modern context, involve violence, patriarchy, and that old standby, tradition. The answers for the ancient Greeks and Romans were likely something else.

But Wertenbaker’s twist on this tale is fair enough, treading a little too didactically only in the penultimate summation of this play’s chorus. Fair enough. Moral commentary is, after all, the chorus’ main job in ancient drama lest we, the audience, fail to grasp the point.

Things take a dark turn for Tereus (Matthew Schleigh), Philomele, and Niobe (Rena Cherry Brown).
Things take a dark turn for Tereus (Matthew Schleigh), Philomele, and Niobe (Rena Cherry Brown). (Credit: Stan Brough)

Constellation has a genuine knack for blending both ancient traditions and contemporary insights into fantastic productions that, while clothed in mythology, resonate logically and emotionally in our own times. This current production is no exception to the rule.

Kendra Rai’s costuming feels real and authentic, while A. J. Guban’s simple, linear set provides an excellent backdrop, maximizing the use of Source’s small performance space in a way that gives the actors and dancers maximum latitude for expression.

Better, although perhaps tough on the budget, seating for each performance is minimal and therefore amazingly intimate in this design. We feel as if this is a play being performed for us alone, and it makes what’s happening on stage all the more intimate, personal and moving.

Better still, director Allison Arkell Stockman clearly has inspired her players to dig deeply into their roles, perhaps more than usual if that’s actually possible. The result: even the minor characters add distinctive bits of dramatic spice to this production.

The celebration of Bacchus will reveal an unpleasant surprise. (Credit: Stan Barouh)
The celebration of Bacchus will reveal an unpleasant surprise. (Credit: Stan Barouh)

As for the actors themselves, let’s start by giving an additional hat tip to Megan Dominy for her warm, convincing and deeply tragic portrayal of Philomele. In ancient Greek drama, characters, while based in reality, were in fact archetypes that frequently drew more attention to the emotions and characeristics they represented in life rather than to themselves as human beings.

In spite of this tradition, Megan Dominy still makes us care deeply about her character as well as what Philomele represents, helping transform this production into something special.

Another “Brava!” to Rena Cherry Brown whose considerable accomplishments on various DC area stages over the years we’ve always greatly admired. As Philomele’s older and sadly wiser servant Niobe, Brown quickly gets to the dark heart of the matter, providing a psychological, orchestral backdrop, as it were, to Megan Dominy’s operatic heroine.

The older Niobe has already been through it all, including the horrors of rape and debasement. She knows that for a woman of her times, remaining quiet and unobtrusive is often the best way to fend off violence and humiliation, yet she rightly loathes every bit of that hard-won knowledge. She foresees what will happen to Philomele if her young charge doesn’t tone down her forward ways.

But the hardened, world-weary cynic in Niobe also realizes that, like the doomed, post-Trojan War Cassandra, she’ll never be listened to. She feels instinctively that her hard won experience will prove utterly useless in this situation. It’s Niobe’s strange, bitter, regretful, almost twisted tenderness toward Philomele and her predictably onrushing tragedy that Brown captures with surprising dignity in her exceptionally insightful performance.

As this play’s official very bad guy, kudos as well to Matthew Schleigh as the heroic but profoundly flawed King Tereus. “Nightingale’s” clearly feminist playwright does this character no favors in her script. Yet in this modern, three-dimensional Greek tragedy, a cardboard cutout Tereus would be distinctly out of place, a sort of Snidely Whiplash among the more realistically developed characters.

Enter Matthew Schleigh who instinctively unearths the humanity in this role, coaxing it forth in odd and interesting ways, slowly revealing in mannerism and demeanor that, justified or not, much of his violent assault on life is grounded in deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. None of this is an excuse for his brutality, of course. But Schleigh’s Tereus is proof that the reasons behind evil in this world run deep and can’t easily be dismissed.

Without a genuinely complex villain, this production would have been far less effective. Schleigh’s massively conflicted Tereus rescues it from that potential fate.

Other key but lesser roles are also quite notable here, particularly Dorea Schmidt’s evocative, protean performance as a complex but loyal Procne. Ditto Ashley Ivey’s subtle, performance as Tereus’ doomed sea captain who takes a shine to Philomele at precisely the wrong time.

Of particular note is young Henry Niepoetter’s brief but key appearance as Tereus’ son, Itys. A chip off the old block, this young warrior ultimately becomes a key target of Philomele’s and Procne’s revenge. Niepoetter, like his older counterparts, interprets his role with accomplished subtlety, making us fear that he will live to perpetuate his father’s violent life while at the same time fearing the unjust fate that actually confronts him.

Last but as usual not least, a special note on the work of composer-musician Tom Teasley who’s become Constellation’s go-to guy for background music when it comes to scoring the company’s ancient epic productions.

Juggling any number of ancient or reproduction instruments along with assorted electronic music and effects, both Teasley’s scores and his live performances in “Nightingale” and other Constellation productions are deeply evocative of ancient songs and modes while at the same time coming through as moody, contemporary, danceable and eminently accessible cues for the modern ear.

If you’re looking for hard-hitting, non-traditional traditional ancient drama that packs an unexpected emotional wallop, Constellation’s “The Love of the Nightingale” is where you’re most likely to find what you’re searching for through June 2.


Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

Constellation Theatre Company’s “The Love of the Nightingale” continues at the Source through June 2, 2014. Address: 1835 14th St. NW on the corner of T St., two blocks from the U St./ Cardozo Metro. On-street parking is available within a few blocks, but neighborhood parking restrictions and night-life in the area can make Metro a better bet unless you know the nearby streets.

Tickets: $35-45.

For Tickets or Information: Visit Constellation Theatre’s website or Call 202-204-7741.


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