A Canter Down Chaucer's Long And Windy Road

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2006

They do gas on in the Royal Shakespeare Company's epic-length retelling of "The Canterbury Tales." And we're not just talking about the dialogue. It's nothing short of astonishing how much flatulence a major classical theater company has to muster in the noble cause of bringing six hours of Chaucer to the stage.

The breaking of wind is one of the many refined challenges facing the 20 actors -- trained at such august institutions as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Central School of Speech and Drama and the Bristol Old Vic -- who've arrived at the Kennedy Center with most of the tales in tow. So let's not ignore, please, the more dignified aspects of their craft. Such as the technical rigors of a poke in the sack. Or in a tree. Or in a meadow. Or . . .

Ahem! The actors have their way with one another so often, rutting their hours upon the stage, that one easily can justify describing the production as an exceptional mounting.

In point of fact, vulgar and bawdy are merely the coarsest of the many theatrical flavors in this funny, sharply textured and daringly lengthy roundup of Geoffrey Chaucer's interlaced storybook, a foundation English text that expresses the universal in the human comedy. Through something on the order of 20 tales -- the published play lists more than 200 characters -- the RSC revives not just a celebrated classic but also a breadth of literary imagination as 14th-century folk might have experienced it.

The RSC's commitment here is to a mammoth Chaucerian feast, and the sensibility it encompasses is rewardingly comprehensive, elastic enough to channel both the chivalric ideal in Arthurian legend and "Spamalot." Over the two three-hour sittings that "The Canterbury Tales" spans, virtually all the pilgrims' famous tales are dramatized in a verse form that modernizes Chaucer's archaic English yet retains a weathered sense of irony and wit. The undertaking is so large that three directors -- Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby -- had to divvy up the job.

You can offer your own hymn of thanks that a company of this caliber tackled this gargantuan assignment, for at times it can be patience-testing. A troupe with a consistently accomplished technique -- often an RSC specialty -- is needed to help the audience get through some of the more long-winded of the stories, which tend not to be evenly absorbing. Some, such as "The Knight's Tale" in Part I and "The Franklin's Tale" in Part II, are in desperate need of additional compression.

In this style of episodic theater, one that lacks a galvanizing narrative rhythm, a further difficulty arises: The production begins and ends each time a new tale is told. By the 14th or 15th tale, the device has pretty much run out of steam, so that the last several times an actor utters, "There once was . . .," the sense of deja vu creeps ever closer to the precipice of nerve-deadening. Unlike, say, Tony-winning Mary Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses," a contemporary take on the stories of Ovid, or Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Into the Woods," a musical blending of fairy tale characters, the RSC makes little effort to reweave Chaucer's threads.

The adaptation by Mike Poulton, in fact, while adding vivid transitional interplay, marches out the tales in the order of the Chaucer text.

All of which leads to the question that fans of this sort of lavish indulgence of a classic want to know: Do you need to sit through all six hours? The answer is no, and I know this because after three hours, I was sated. Although the two parts are a little different tonally -- there's more ribaldry in the first three hours, for example -- half of "The Canterbury Tales" is probably enough.

For those inclined to a 50 percent immersion, it doesn't really matter into which end you dive. Each part evokes, in music as well as words, Chaucer's range. Take your pick: Part I offers both the naughty, farcical abandon of "The Miller's Tale" and the dark, ugly prejudices of the Prioress's; Part II stretches from the cuckoldry of "The Merchant's Tale" to the parable-poignancy of the Clerk of Oxenford's.

A few of the actors distinguish themselves slightly more than others. Particular delights are Paola Dionisotti, as a magical crone in "The Wife of Bath's Tale"; Katherine Tozer, patient Grisilde of "The Clerk's Tale"; and Joshua Richards, as spinner of "The Summoner's Tale."

At all times, Mark Hadfield is a splendid Chaucer, the mysterious fly on the wall -- "Nobody you know," he replies, when asked about himself by one of the pilgrims -- who immortalizes them all.

The premise, as generation upon generation of English majors has been taught, is that on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, each in a retinue of diverse travelers is called on to recite a tale. What is illuminated in the process is an entire society, secular and religious, rich and poor, educated and intellectually limited. But also, on this journey anyway, marvelously egalitarian. Everyone, no matter his or her station, gets a shot.

In a manner that becomes too predictably consistent, each story is narrated on the Eisenhower Theater stage by one pilgrim and acted by the rest of the cast. Michael Vale's set is unifyingly and timelessly spartan, a grassy field with a single metallic tree. (Vale also designed the costumes, and those who have the job of keeping track of the endless medieval fashion parade deserve a curtain call all their own.) For various stories, the directors use trendy theatrical embroidery: cartoonish hand puppets for the rooster and fox characters in "The Nun's Priest's Tale" (Part I) and shadow puppets in "The Franklin's Tale."

Adrian Lee's music, by a four-piece band performing with flutes, harps and hurdy-gurdies, marks time in upbeat style -- and don't be surprised when the time in question suddenly hip-hops across the centuries. It's in such irreverent moments that the RSC giddily picks up where Chaucer left off.

Like any extended trip, the one to Canterbury has its longueurs, stretches of a theatrical version of highway hypnosis, in which you glaze over as sets and actors whiz by. All told, though, the company has packed with enough inspiration to make large portions a merry ride.

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, adapted by Mike Poulton. Directed by Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby. Lighting, Wayne Dowdeswell; sound, Jeremy Dunn; movement, Michael Ashcroft; fight director, Terry King; music director, Sylvia Hallett. With Paola Dionisotti, Michael Matus, Christopher Saul, Joshua Richards, Christopher Godwin, Lisa Ellis, Chu Omambala. Part I: About three hours. Part II: About three hours. Through May 7 at Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org .

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