Grads Revive Newly Relevant ‘Nightingale'

As 2006’s 100th U.S. soldier passes away in Iraq; as the Supreme Court debates just how far it can push infringements on our civil liberties; as the midterm elections play out, UCSD’s department of theatre and dance has appropriately chosen to perform Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “The Love of the Nightingale,” an adaptation of the Greek myth Philomele.

The story tells of the tragic rape of Philomele by her brother-in-law, who silences her by removing her tongue. It is, at its most basic level, a distinction between vice and virtue, divided by gender. The male is depicted as wrought with vice, exhibiting a lust for women and power secured through rape and war. The female, on the other hand, represents a pure virtue challenged only her susceptibility to the one virtue that all men do possess — namely, their “sponge,” as the phallus is innocently described at the start of the play.

But one ill-fated circumstance after another rips this naivete from the lexis of our heroine, Philomele (eloquently played by Liz Elkins), whose adjusted perception of masculinity yields the most riveting monologue of the play. Philomele’s furious tirade spits truth in the face of Tereus, King of Thrace (the brilliantly vile Ryan Shams), who symbolizes man at his most feral. She turns toward the audience, her speech rising above one sneering mouth and pair of crazed eyes, to the attention of anyone sitting silently in a dark theater as the world outside rages. Philomele calls on the audience to question its leaders and discover the “jelly beneath hard skin,” or the political conniving behind policy. “Has your country seen you naked?” she demands of her king. If all were laid bare, if this man’s “shriveled courage” was revealed, would his soldiers still follow him into battle? Her rhetoric can be easily connected to the crumbling Bush administration.

But last weekend, as the lights came on and the theater doors released the audience into the night, no one discussed such questions. After-show chatter only concerned the opposition of one character against another, or irrelevancies like the poverty that plagues young actors. “It was a good story,” one audience member simply muttered. “I don’t know. I just liked it.”

With theater that aims such well-formed and chillingly delivered speeches at lacking, misguided or even malicious leaders, with a play that so challenges the silencing of critical inquiry and the subsequent absence of rebellion, it is hard to imagine that anyone could fail to consider the controversies it broaches.

Revolutions used to be brewed on the stage. And now? Where do we find hope for change or progressive movement — in our poll boxes, our courts, our universities? “The Love of the Nightingale,” revived by a cast of UCSD grad students, serves to remind us of the necessity of opposition and the price of silence in its stead.

“The Love of the Nightingale” plays Nov. 9 – 11 at 8 p.m. in the Mandell Weiss Forum. Student tickets are $10.