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THEATER REVIEW: 'Tristan & Yseult"

The five-member band plays songs like “Perfidia,” “Reaching For The Moon” and “Only The Lonely” before the show starts, from its perch at the end of a long runway above the stage.

Meanwhile, several anorak- and balaclava-clad actors roam down the theater aisles, binoculars and notebooks in hand, looking for something. These are Lovespotters, hoping to soon relinquish membership in the Club of the Unloved.

Love in its many aspects – giddiness, devotion, obsession, betrayal – or, as Tristan defines it, the “temporary euphoria of impossibility” – is the topic of “Tristan & Iseult,” a visually stunning retelling of the old Celtic legend onstage through Feb. 22 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward), leader of the Lovespotters, serves as our guide to this old legend (better known in these parts as Tristan and Isolde). Here’s the plot: after Cornish knight Tristan (Dominic Marsh) vanquishes Morholt, king of Ireland (Niall Ashdown), Cornwall’s King Mark (Mike Shepherd) sends Tristan to bring back Morholt’s sister Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) to be his bride.

But love is a dangerous and fickle thing, and when Yseult asks maid Brangian (Niall Ashdown) to bring her a love potion to help her fall in love with the king she’s never seen but will marry, Tristan requests some wine to wash it down.

In one of the best scenes, Brangian explains which is which (“Potion, wine -- wine, potion. Have you got that?”). But of course, they both drink liberally from both glasses, leading to a delightful Dance of Intoxication – and fall hopelessly in love. This cannot end well.

Kneehigh is famous for homegrown scripts written communally and presented in highly visualized fashion. “Tristan” is presented on a minimalist set consisting of a circular platform with a large mast-like pole, allowing for dance and acrobatics as well as acting and singing. There’s even a break-dancer.

Kneehigh uses theatrical conventions in an unusual way here. The script is written in two styles. Carl Grose wrote the scenes for King Mark and his courtier Frocin (Damon Daunno) in stately iambic pentameter; Anna Maria Murphy gives the more emotional characters modern language. Tristan occasionally speaks French. A short clip from Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde” is played on an old-fashioned record player.

“Tristan & Iseult,” originally presented a decade ago and one of Kneehigh’s most popular productions, is currently on tour. The cast is top-notch, as are the musicians and stagecraft.

This is a story almost everyone can relate to. Who hasn’t loved the wrong person, betrayed or been betrayed by a loved one, or been a member of the Club of the Unloved? So sit back, relax and enjoy these fine actors in this fanciful and extremely theatrical story (which even includes audience participation).

The details

Kneehigh’s “Tristan & Iseult” plays through Feb. 22 at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets: (714) 708-5555 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.