Andrew Durand (Tristan) and Patrycja Kujawska (Yseult) perform the title roles in Kneehigh’s Tristan and Yseult. Photo: Steve Tanner

First-rate theater lifts our well-cushioned minds and derrières out of life’s doldrums, challenging us to contemplate the great mysteries of human existence: love, hate, honor, betrayal, death, and why zippers always get stuck when we are in a hurry. It also titillates our bawdier senses, tickles our funny bones, threatens our presumptions and steals our breath away with unexpected brilliance and beauty.

Berkeley Rep’s Tristan & Yseult, running now through Jan. 18, is first-rate theater. Spoiler alert: the show’s only downside on Dec. 8 was the cold air pouring into the lobby, as smokers slipped outside during intermission. The rest was sublime.

Directed by Emma Rice, Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre returns with the West Coast premiere of their popular show after their previous Berkeley Rep hits, The Wild Bride and Brief Encounter. There’s little point in laying out the production’s synopsis without briefly illustrating its unique evolution in the wildly exuberant hands — make that bodies and imaginations — of Kneehigh.

Rice and joint artistic director Mike Shepherd originally created the play ten years prior to its current revival. Designed to be performed outdoors in a ruined, Cornwall castle, writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy wrestled iambic pentameter, medieval edits and a fascination with Quentin Tarantino-style end-comes-first, fiercely noir structures into a working script. Meanwhile, Rice and the actors explored key concepts and themes of the ancient Celtic tale.

Picture the entire ensemble as master improvisers — and not just with words, but with the physicality you’d expect from the most courageous contemporary dance company or aerial skydivers and the musical chops of the best New Orleans jazz band, Klezmer artists, Patsy Cline, Carl Orff and Richard Wagner (excerpts of the latter’s Tristan and Isolde play a pivotal auditory role in the production). The script, and indeed, the entire production, takes its shape in a kind of human aquarium populated by fluid, colorful, elite artist/creatures.

Essentially, Tristan & Yseult asks, and deliciously answers, 1,000-year-old questions relating to love: Can a person love two lovers at one time? What becomes of love when the intoxication, the love potion, wears off? What happens when the thin line separating love and hate is blurred and sweet addiction turns into smudgy, hot vengeance? Must we forgive love’s betrayal?

Now the synopsis: Tristan & Yseult’s classic love triangle tells the story of a warrior, Tristan (Andrew Durand); his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd), and Yseult (Patrycja Kujawska), who is the sister of the Irish ruler and King Mark’s greatest enemy, Morholt (Craig Johnson). After Tristan kills Morholt, Mark orders him to seek further revenge by kidnapping Yseult and hauling her to Cornwall, where he will force the young woman to be his royal bride. On the journey, Tristan and Yseult drink a love potion, with the expected result: copulation.  A Dressed to Kill narrator in a dusty, mustard-colored outfit and Mad Men shades, Whitehands (Carly Bawden), wields song and searingly straightforward narration to guide us through the characters’ overlapping passions, Yseult’s falling into gentle, unexpected love with Mark, and the slippery-sly betrayal by Mark’s courtier, Frocin (Giles King), who reveals the young lovers’ secret dalliances to the king.

Perhaps because it is such a familiar tome — love grasped, lost, lonely hearts breaking — Kneehigh is able to launch the audience on a raucous, outrageously majestic ride through the complex, ancient tale with nary a misstep.

Andrew Durand is the warrior Tristan in the West Coast premiere of Tristan and Yseult. Photo: Steve Tanner

Music Director Ian Ross’s Club of the Unloved band, perched on a raised platform above the set’s central, circular stage and accessed by tour boat-like ramps, opens the show. Magically, Willie Nelson’s Crazy and Roy Orbisons’s Only the Lonely, sung in Bawden’s glimmering tones, is perfect preamble for the anxious ensemble, who wander amid the audience in dark windbreakers, geek-glasses, and knit hoodies while peering through binoculars and furtively writing in hand-held notepads. The are “Lovespotters,” like bird-spotters, but in this case love’s rejects; volleying throughout the play between fragile, crushing loneliness and a desperate, thirsty desire to be bombarded by love.

It is evidence of Kneehigh’s genius for uniting elevated drama and high comedy, when two Lovespotters munch on popcorn as if mesmerized by a Hollywood romance, while a deadly serious, climactic scene unfolds (Yseult offers Mark a knife; he tosses it aside and embraces, rather than kills her). And later, when Whitehands pierces the story’s bubble and her rage burns holes in every beating heart, the play’s grand purpose — truth-telling, no matter the sacrifice — makes the use of superlatives in review impossible to avoid. Frequently, Rice’s subtle staging makes close neighbors of laughing and crying: this is first-rate theater.

The play’s language is lovable, both in Mark’s noble “War spills like wine, leaders lie,” and Whitehands’ “stories are strange and stubborn things.”

Astute choreography melds into the overall kids-on-a-blacktop mayhem, with everything from balletic tour jetés to hip- and lindy-hop, to a foursome’s hilariously mimed exposition (drawing the king’s crown was priceless).

A routine that opened both acts — rub thighs, wiggle fingers, move hands apart vertically in front of heart — soared into profound pathos when married to Brangian’s sacrificial loss of her virginity on Yseult’s behalf. Designer Bill Mitchell‘s mainsail mast was used to tremendous effect: comically, during King’s precarious polaroid camera routine; tragically, hoisting the mortally wounded Tristan aloft; and erotically, supporting various cast members in ecstasy. Most visually arresting: the white silk backdrop, unfurling with Yseult’s arrival, then shuddering as Whitehands’ lie cut love’s ties and it descended, leaving only blackness.

Of course, none of this would be remarkable, if it weren’t for the cast. No one actor stood out: they all did.

Graceful, geeky, genuine and jolly, Kneehigh, dare we repeat, is first-rate theater. Put them in charge of the weather — and zippers — and we might have a perfect world.

Berkeley Rep’s The Wild Bride is fantastical theater (12.09.11)

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.