Constellation Theatre Company has developed one of the most distinctive house styles in town, especially when they light into classic myths and exotic design on a budget. “The Love of the Nightingale,” which opened Sunday night, is a great example: The rape tale is Ovid’s, processed through Greek tragedy and director Allison Arkell Stockman’s sumptuous theatrical sensibility. The result is dynamic and heartbreaking.
Scenic designer A.J. Guban transforms the Source Theatre into an opulent little den, with slender gilded slabs at the back of a long ramped stage that’s painted shiny black and streaked with bloody red. Also nestled in the back, in something like a DJ booth, is Tom Teasley, steadily playing live original music on a host of fascinating international instruments.
In the intimate Source, where you’re likely to be only two or three rows from the action, you can scrutinize each detail on Kendra Rai’s ancient-looking costumes. One soldier’s thick leather belt is layered like armadillo armor; shirtless warriors half-covered by pelts and hides seem especially barbaric.
The deluxe atmosphere sweeps you through the occasional slow spots of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s script, which the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered in 1989. Wertenbaker chooses a high formality for the dialogue and builds her story gradually, starting with men in hand-to-hand combat and moving through the youthful romantic longings of sisters Philomele and Procne.
Following the myth, Procne marries the conqueror Tereus, with Wertenbaker taking an interest in female desire and masculine violence. (She also wants us to think in international terms, but that’s not quite the show she wrote.) Inexorably, we’re funneled toward Tereus’s brutal rape of Philomele and, every bit as harrowing, its aftermath.
The catastrophes are rendered with true tragic force, and by no means does everything rely on the ace design, which includes extremely canny lighting in the tight space by Joseph R. Walls. The cast more than pulls its weight, especially in the three leading roles.
Matthew Schleigh is a strapping, formidable Tereus — not just a dumb thug in power, but a man in conflict with his own impulses. You can feel the mind at work even during the alarmingly quick and frightening bits of violence. (Matthew R. Wilson is the fight director.)
The show’s pathos flows through Dorea Schmidt and Megan Dominy as Procne and Philomele, respectively, charming figures whose abuse triggers formidable rage from both performers. Rena Cherry Brown adds a solid cynical note as a servant advising Philomele, and Stockman — Constellation’s founding artistic director — keeps the cast of roughly a dozen actors flowing gracefully across the runway-shaped stage.
That’s the thing: The show is full, but not overstuffed or proud of its ingenuity, whether it’s rehashing an atrocity by briefly using puppets or ginning up a wild bacchanal that keys the final disaster. Stockman and resourceful crew are seldom bashful about sprinkling their myths and epics with dazzle, but that certainly never upstages this fable’s dark heart.
By Timberlake Wertenbaker. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman. Dance and movement, Kelly King; puppet design, Don Becker. With Edward Christian, Vanessa Bradchulis, Bru Ajueyitsi, Daniel Corey, Henry Niepoetter, Ashley Ivey, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Emma Jackson, and Neelam Patel. About 110 minutes. Through May 25 at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets $35-$45. Call 202-204-7741 or visit www.constellationtheatre.org.