THE KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE, Eclipse Theatre Company. The recent TV movie Merlin made the tale of Camelot an allegory for Christianity’s displacement of paganism. But in this 1937 play, French poet Jean Cocteau uses the legend for less grandiose purposes. Here King Arthur and his court–including his wife Guinevere, her longtime lover Launcelot, and the super-pure newcomer Galahad–are paralyzed by “the habit of living in shadows and silence,” as one character puts it. Like the dysfunctional bourgeois family in Cocteau’s 1938 hit Les parents terribles, Camelot’s inhabitants are plagued by hypocrisy, treachery, delusion, and denial; Arthur is a sightless, balding buffoon, literally blind to his wife’s adultery and infatuated with his nephew Gawain–who’s actually a demonic doppelganger in the service of the occult opportunist Merlin.

Director Jay Paul Skelton gives this supernatural soap opera (seen here in W.H. Auden’s 1951 translation) an imaginative modern-dress staging, conveying a blend of magic and mundanity with the aid of an eerily effective sound design and Ken Puttbach’s evocative set, which buries the tiny Eclipse stage under gravel to signify Camelot’s decay. The solid ensemble is highlighted by intense, mercurial Janet Hayatshahi, playing both the passionate, perplexed Guinevere and her wacky stand-in, created through witchcraft. Veering intriguingly if unevenly between manic farce, mystical adventure, and melancholy philosophizing, this moody, whimsical piece is a genuine rarity that should enthrall connoisseurs of poetic theater.

–Albert Williams