Greystone Theatre goes Greek: The Love of the Nightingale gives facelift to classical myth

Tereus (Jordan Svenkeson) caresses Philomele (Alana Pancyr) after cutting out her tongue.

If birds could speak, oh the lyrics they would weave. The final instalment of Greystone Theatre’s season tackles ancient Greek tragedy combined with modern political commentary — along with a healthy dose of sex, violence and excitement.

The Love of the Nightingale by Timberlake Wertenbaker is a retelling of the old story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses about the tragedy of Philomele and Procne. Philomele’s sister Procne is married to Tereus, the king of Thrace. However, Tereus decides he is in love with Philomele, so he rapes her in a moment of emotional vulnerability, then cuts out her tongue when she promises to spread word of the rape.

Philomele, without a voice, must construct an elaborate plan to wordlessly accuse Tereus. And then eventually everyone is turned into birds. That’s ancient Greece for you. But Wertenbaker takes this simple — if gruesome and somewhat peculiar — myth and spins it into a politically resonant tale about freedom, social justice and marginalization.

Nightingale is what director Dwayne Brenna calls “total theatre” — it encompasses “acting, dance, song, acrobatics, fight choreography, sex and violence.” There are two worlds being balanced within the play: the old world of ancient Greece (the script draws from fragments of a lost tragedy by Sophocles) and a modern, feminist world that ignites a fire in the central character.

“Philomele is a symbol for truth,” said Alana Pancyr, the fourth-year acting major who plays the lead role. “She is someone who says what [she] feels.”

Despite the tragedy that the character undergoes, Pancyr is quite insistent that “she isn’t a victim” because she stands up for herself and is never successfully silenced.

Brenna chose this play in large part for its strong female roles, which is a rare thing in a classical context. The text brings to bear the strength of female sexuality, and poses the female character as an “observer of male beauty” in a notable role reversal, especially contrasting with the Greek tradition. Consequently, Brenna “tried to get out of the way” to let the actresses engage with the characters.

Danielle Spilchen, who plays Procne, enjoyed working under Brenna’s process, finding that it was “all about exploration of scenes, finding [the character] organically in yourself.” While it was difficult to imbue these mythical Greek characters with a modern sense of realism, Spilchen said that Wertenbaker’s script made the job easier.

Nightingale utilizes many stylistic elements of Greek theatre with a twist of modernity. The classical Greek chorus is present, but rather than being dull, monotone spectators, they have their own layers of complexity and, in Brenna’s words, “a political axe to grind.” There is a play-within-a-play, which affords the opportunity to play with more rigid classical acting and mask-work, which then notably contrasts with the greater psychological dimension of the larger play.

Brenna acknowledges the challenge for the actors of performing on the sparse classical stage, relying on their voices and bodies to communicate. But this also allows the freedom to explore different styles of performance, incorporating fight choreography and dance. A gymnast even came in to coach the actors on a particularly acrobatic scene.

Amid the grand performance, there is a distinct political message that seems eerily prescient of our present day society. Brenna described the message as “the importance of speaking truth to power.” For Pancyr, Philomele stands for the silenced minority — which is, of course, a subject of increasing attention these days.

Spilchen said that when the audience comes to attend the play, she expects them “to laugh, to become uncomfortable, and to think.” Ultimately, the play is about “what happens when someone is silenced. Are they really silenced or do they have to work that much harder to be heard?”


Photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf