Editors' pick

Canterbury

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Editorial Review

In ode to Chaucer’s pilgrims, every tale’s for itself
By Peter Marks
Monday, February 25, 2013

“Canterbury” is what might happen to Chaucer’s raucous 14th-century pilgrims if they stopped for a brewski or three at an English major’s dorm party.

Draped in Natalie Drutz’s wittily cartoonish costumes, and serenaded on various instruments by Michael Winch and Niall Owen McCusker, the eight actors of the fledgling Pointless Theatre Co. offer up merry, spunky and dramatically erratic versions of seven of the better-known installments of that staple of world lit survey courses, “The Canterbury Tales.”

This effusive ensemble, many of its members graduates of the University of Maryland’s theater program who banded together to form Pointless, exudes a pleasure in performance that can’t help but infect the audience in Flashpoint’s Mead Theater Lab. At times, though, the cast’s exuberance comes at the expense of polish, and the manner in which some of the tales are spun -- even with the aid of clever, makeshift puppets -- feels rushed and disjointed.

Some of the storytelling inefficiencies may be a product of the show’s team approach to playwriting. A total of eight writers are credited in the program, one for each tale, except for a pair of playwrights who collaborate on the dramatization of the Wife of Bath’s tale. The echoing of Chaucer’s literary device -- the pilgrims compete for a prize for the best tale -- links the play authoritatively to the original. What remains underdeveloped for the purposes of the stage is a narrative spine, something beyond the innkeeper (Maya Jackson) asking, “Okay, who’s going next?”

Perhaps this problem is inevitable when each writer is primarily concerned with only his or her particular slice of the project. In any event, “Canterbury” is more successful at creating charming moments than at avoiding the impression of repetition.

And yet, there’s more than enough that’s promising in “Canterbury” to ponder what Pointless might come up with next. Art director Patti Kalil, who heads up the company with the play’s director, Matt Reckeweg, turns Flashpoint’s black-box space into the gleefully appointed tavern in which the pilgrims gather. (It’s so invitingly designed, you wish that Pointless would serve us all a few flagons of grog.) A chivalrous knight (Matthew Sparacino), a purity-minded nun (Rachel Menyuk), a supercilious merchant (Frank Cervarich) and a boorish miller (Lex Davis) are among the travelers to Canterbury coaxed by the innkeeper into a ribald Middle Ages version of “Can You Top This?”

The pilgrims agree to play parts in one another’s tales, which revolve around sex, chamber pots and flatulence. The stories give the cast opportunities to transform materials laying around the pub into puppets; with a scythe and some fabric, for example, the pilgrims conjure Chanticleer, the rooster, in the Nun’s Tale, one of the evening’s better, and clearer, interludes.

Cervarich’s turn as an ever-drunker and more morose merchant comes closest to giving us a glimpse of how the evening of revelry might reveal something about each of the revelers. Menyuk, meanwhile, makes endearing a role that could have been grating, and Lee Gerstenhaber applies a risible voraciousness to the serially married Wife of Bath.

As orchestrated by director Reckeweg, the bawdy spirit of “Canterbury” comes through in a joyful way. One can imagine that with more thought about how to envelop the pilgrims’ stories in a more compelling context, what a grander night for narrators this might be.

PREVIEW: Through puppetry, an instructive tale
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, February 8, 2013

The puppeteering Pointless Theatre Company likes to stage the seemingly unproduceable. It transformed the 1920s jazz ditty “Minnie the Moocher” into a whimsical cabaret, brought the apocalypse to the stage with “Imagination Meltdown Adventure” and took on Dada, of all things, with “Hugo Ball,” creating captivating theatrical anarchy that garnered the troupe its second Fringe Festival award for best experimental production.

So who better to take on “The Canterbury Tales,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s behemoth 14th-century Middle English masterpiece? It has a few things working against it -- meandering stories that vary maniacally in tone and subject matter and that recall the musty aura of high school English fare. But Pointless has no qualms about putting its unconventional stamp on a centuries-old text that has been endlessly parsed by academics.

“At some point the idea of doing a reverent adaptation of Chaucer is kind of hilarious,” says Alex Leidy, the adapting dramaturg for “Canterbury.” “He wasn’t exactly the most reverent writer.”

For those who haven’t revisited Chaucer since high school, here’s a refresher: An eclectic group headed on a pilgrimage passes the time with a storytelling competition. The tales range from the bawdy (thanks to the Wife of Bath) to the moralizing (the Parson), and involve love triangles (the Knight’s Tale), revenge (per the Reeve) and extramarital affairs (as told by the inebriated Miller).

“Everything you want is somewhere in ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ ” Leidy says. “It’s sacred and it’s profane and it’s high and it’s low, and it’s just such an incredible collection of stories that it still feels very relevant.”

Pointless cut the number of stories to seven but also complicated the process in some sense. A different playwright has adapted each of the tales. Patti Kalil, co-artistic director and designer for the play, sees the strategy as suiting the troupe’s sense of limitless possibilities.

“It was so obvious after we thought about it,” she says of the un­or­tho­dox multi-author approach. “It was like, ‘Yeah, this is the only way to do it.’ ”

Then there are the puppets. The group’s past productions have had a crafty cardboard feel, an aesthetic reminiscent of a Michel Gondry film. But these puppets are different, formed on-the-fly from found objects. Cast and crew compare the play’s setting, an English pub, to Ye Olde Applebee’s, partly because of the motley collectibles lining the walls. The puppetry ingredients come from the decor -- a cross hanging nearby might become a body and a napkin might serve as a face. Even the tables and benches can be upended, transforming into towers.

“The person telling the story becomes the puppet designer and the director of his little play,” Kalil says. “On our end, it’s completely choreographed and thought out. On the audience’s end, it’s supposed to sort of seem like this improvising of: We’re at a bar and hanging out.”

It sounds like a lot of moving parts, but Pointless tends to choose intricacy over simplicity to tell stories in unexpected ways. And maybe, all these years later, students who hated “The Canterbury Tales” can grasp why it’s part of the curriculum.

“There’s a lot, at least in high school English classes, of this approach of ‘This is an important book because it’s important and you should like it,’ and I think a lot of people react to that by going, ‘Why should I?’ ” Leidy says. “As someone who really loves ‘Canterbury,’ the show has been a fantastic opportunity to . . . take the work and put it in a new light and say, ‘Well, here’s why.’ ”