‘Nightingale’ explores greek myth in today’s L.A.

By John Angell Grant Daily Planet Correspondent
Monday February 12, 2001

Berkeley’s Central Works Theater Ensemble opened its 11th season Friday at LaVal’s with the world premiere of an intriguing new play "Nightingale." This production is a homecoming of sorts, since the company performed its first two seasons at LaVal’s in 1990-1992. 

Set in Los Angeles, “Nightingale” is a modern-day retelling of a grisly Greek myth about rape and murder within a family, and justice and revenge. Ovid retells the story in his “Metamorphoses,” and Sophocles apparently wrote an earlier play about the myth which has not survived. 

In the myth, King Tereus rapes his wife’s younger sister Philomela. When she threatens to tell about the rape, Tereus cuts her tongue out and imprisons her. 

Philomela then weaves her story into a tapestry and smuggles it out to her sister. The two women take revenge by killing the king’s son and feeding his body to him in a stew. 

After the king pursues the two women in a rage, the gods turn them all into birds, and Philomela becomes a nightingale. 

Central Works has altered elements of this myth in their modern-day Los Angeles retelling that was written by Gary Graves, but developed collaboratively by company members during a workshop process. 

“Nightingale’s” opening moments are strong. A silent tableau of horrified and traumatized rape victim Melody Weaver (Rica Anderson), with bloody mouth, is juxtaposed against a low budget local television commercial featuring her rapist — “carpet king” Terry King (Louis Parnell) — giving a hard television sales pitch for the best carpet deals in the San Fernando Valley.  

Cut from that to Terry’s pregnant real estate lawyer wife Renee (Jan Zvaifler) as she sorrowfully prepares a dinner in their upscale Valley dining room, while husband Terry, disoriented, drinks a cocktail and looks in the neighborhood for the missing family dog. 

When Renee’s missing younger sister Melody suddenly shows up and invites herself back into the family after running away unexpectedly ten years earlier at age 15, things get tense. 

Wild Melody has been a doper and prostitute on the run, sort of a female version of the Sam Shepard desert rat. And the missing pet dog may, in fact, be the beef bourguignon being served for dinner. 

In updating to present day Los Angeles a mythological Greek story of kings, queens, gods, and magical birds, Central Works has created elliptical incongruities in the story, but these are more often thought-provoking and poetical than misplaced. 

Moments in the production that may at first seem like continuity confusions, such as wife Renee’s apparent ambivalence about the rape, usually right themselves as the story progresses. 

The script’s main weakness, as it passes through its tough confrontation, climax and resolution of sorts, is that it loses the feel of specific, individual Los Angeles people. As the story progresses, the three characters fade, rather, into symbolic types. 

The unexpected sexual kiss between the two sisters at the play’s end also sends the story careening in new direction that isn’t much explored. 

In this play, which runs about 85 minutes without an intermission, director Graves and the actors take their time with the silences between this lines. Generally, this is effective. 

The rape and denial set-up at the top give a powerful subtext to the innocuous amenities and politeness that are later spoken among the three. 

Gregory Scharpen’s sound design adds many nice touches, from the 1950s Johnny Mathis love songs that open and close the play, to the sounds of birds, the low-level rumbling of the earth opening and ghostly expressionist musical tracks that put the story at times in a world bigger than the Los Angeles moment. 

Those Greeks knew how to write a drawing room tragedy. 


“Nightingale,” presented by Central Works at LaVal’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Avenue, Berkeley, Friday through Sunday, through March 4. Call (510) 558-1381 or go to www.centralworks.org.