“It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” is how James Brown and Betty Jean Newsome said it in 1966. (And Brown denied Newsome’s contributions to the song in court decades later, as if to prove the title correct.)
“Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” is how John Lennon and Yoko Ono said it in 1972.
“Every man has a choice to make: Commitment, or new pussy?” is how Chris Rock said it in 1996.
And The Love of the Nightingale is how Sophocles said it two-and-a-half millennia earlier, give or take, which got filtered through Ovid’s brain four centuries later, and then British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker’s just eight years ago. In her astute update of the sad story of Philomele and Procne, Wertenbaker dares to have one of her characters, an innocent, ask what a myth is.
“The oblique image of an unwanted truth, reverberating through time,” comes the answer.
And the unwanted truth reverberating, hard, through The Love of the Nightingale is this: Men. Are. Dogs.
Not all men, please. But powerful ones, certainly. Men like King Tereus of Thrace (Matthew Schleigh, marvelous), who claims the Athenian princess Procne (Dorea Schmidt) as his reward for saving Athens—which was better at art and philosophy than at self-defense—from its enemies. But it doesn’t take long for him to decide he wants Philomele (Megan Dominy, who plays naïveté as well as she plays wounded grit), Procne’s outspoken and inquisitive younger sister, too. He’s a king, so when he rationalizes his lust for his sister-in-law as “the will of the god inside” him, he’s just acting in accordance with his upbringing. When lying to Philomele by telling her that her sister—his wife—has died fails as a seduction tactic, he explains to her that her consent is not, strictly speaking, required.
In the hands of Constellation Theatre Company’s artistic director, Allison Arkell Stockman, this ancient tale feels more raw and powerful than any her company has given us in its seven-year existence. In prior Constellation shows, the story sometimes felt like it was taking a backseat to the always-impressive filigree: Kendra Rai’s ornate costumes, Tom Teasley’s original musical scores performed live. Nightingale features those two assets once again—Rai, especially, has outdone herself with the flowing Athenian gowns and military tunics—but this time all the elements are in perfect scale with one another.
As is typical of Constellation productions, the cast is large. A chorus of sailors/soldiers played by Bru Ajueyitsi, Edward Christian, and Daniel Corey makes the most of the scant opportunities for humor in this brutal, tragic tale. As Niobe, a servant who waits on Philomele both before her assault by Tereus and in its gruesome aftermath, Rena Cherry Brown gives a performance of astonishing depth and complexity. We know little of her character’s history, but it’s evident she knows what it is to be used by men and then discarded. But she admits to missing the days when she stirred men’s lust, too. She’s a complex, contradictory, humane character, one who stymies any facile reading of the piece’s grim sexual politics.
Scenic designer A.J. Gruban has installed an uneven wood floor with a glossy finish in Source’s versatile black-box space, putting the audience on three sides of the stage with Teasley’s DJ booth on the fourth. Metallic gold partitions ring the stage. The effect is simply of an otherworldly place, one that stands in for the Athenian court as ably as the deck of a Thracian warship.
Early in the show, before the storm has hit, Athenian King Pandion (Christian) invites the Thracian King to watch a play with him, claiming they help him to think.
“These plays condone vice,” Tereus complains, sounding like Joseph Lieberman.
“Perhaps they only show us the uncomfortable folds of the human heart,” Pandion answers.
Uncomfortable is far too mild a word.