Bailey Hall and Will Thornton in a scene from “The Love of the Nightingale” French Photography/Noli French

Taking flight plays a part in the latest production from the University of Southern Maine Department of Theatre. But before that happens, the characters of “The Love of the Nightingale” must suffer a rough time on the ground.

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play adapts a classic story from Greek mythology into a feminist-minded revenge tragedy. It’s a harrowing account of two brave and adventurous sisters who suffer in a world dominated by (at best) insensitive and (at worst) brutal men. In this thoroughly engrossing, and remarkably timely production, the considerable strengths of the theater program at USM are fully on display.

The sweetly naïve young siblings are separated when the older sister Procne’s hand in marriage is given by her father Pandion, an Athenian king, to his Thracian counterpart Tereus as compensation for the latter’s military assistance. Taken to Thrace where she bears a child, Procne nonetheless feels lonely among the less cultured Thracians and sends Tereus to bring her sister Philomele there for a visit.

On their way to Thrace, Tereus rapes Philomele and then cuts out her tongue when she threatens to reveal his true nature to the world. Only a late arriving metamorphosis provides some relief from the cycle of violence unleashed.

Junior theater major Bailey Hall, in her first mainstage role, is outstanding as Philomele. She traverses her character’s journey from trusting young woman to enraged victim to empowered survivor with compelling urgency. Through beaming smiles, withering scowls and piercing vocal power, her highly expressive style of delivery reached a peak on opening night in her portrayal of Philomele’s confrontation with Tereus.

August Will Thornton, as Tereus, is imperious with just a faint, though unredeeming, hint of being ill-fated by his noble birth. Elizabeth Donato’s Procne slowly chafes at her situation without initially sensing the horrors to come.

Blake Wright plays a ship captain who is fatally attracted to Philomele, and Jackie Condon is the beleaguered servant Niobe who offers careful advice on coping with life in a man’s world. Ava Ziporyn rounds out the main cast as Tereus’ and Procne’s son Itys, whose curiosity leads toward a bloody resolution.

On a minimal set, augmented by projections that provide land and sea contexts as well as offering some silhouetted action, the large cast of undergraduate performers, under the direction of faculty member Rachel Price Cooper, keeps the mythopoetic drama front and center.

Male and female choristers fill in the narrative and provide seamlessly executed music and dance interludes for a play-within-the-play as well as a wild night of the Bacchae. The roughly period costumes add bits of color as do masks and large dolls to make this for-mature-audiences show a rich theatrical experience.

 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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