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Pointless Theatre’s ‘Canterbury’ has the right spirit but lacks cohesion

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“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 Company 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.

Canterbury

By the playwrights of Pointless Theatre, adapted from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Directed by Matt Reckeweg. Costumes, Natalie Drutz; art direction, Patti Kalil; lighting, Jedidiah Roe; music direction, Niall Owen McCusker; fight direction, Lex Davis; dramaturgy, Alex Leidy. With Noah Langer and Scott Whalen. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through March 9 at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. Call 202-315-1305 or visit www.culturaldc.org.

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