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Geoffrey Chaucer & Co.'s pilgrimage toward a festival of all 24 Canterbury Tales has been growing arduous and long -- a full festival planned for last summer had to be postponed -- but every so often it mounts a cluster of Tales that suggests the troupe hasn't been lazy. Lusty Liaisons is the latest: The long-awaited Miller's Tale, coupled with the Reeve's Tale, may be the sharpest and most accessible trick in the bag.
First, some explanation: Geoffrey Chaucer & Co. is a small troupe that set out in 1996, with almost no money, to adapt every Canterbury Tale for the stage -- something that's never been done, as far as anyone can remember. One reason it's never been done is that certain tales just don't work as plays. (The Tale of Melibee is mostly sermon; other tales take too long.) But the cycle still belongs to an oral tradition -- Chaucer meant his poems to be uttered -- so Geoffrey Chaucer & Co. works on the conviction that each tale must be actable. When it finishes The Canterbury Tales the troupe wants to go on to Chaucer's other masterpieces, presumably The Book of the Duchess or Troilus and Cressida. The ambition is whacked but admirable. I may not live long enough, unfortunately, to see them do A Treatise on the Astrolabe.
The controlling idea behind The Canterbury Tales is a storytelling contest for a free supper among all the pilgrims riding to Canterbury. Since the Miller and the Reeve, or carpenter, are the earthiest men in the group, they tell the bawdiest tales. They're also rivals, so their stories work as a mini-contest: First the Miller tells an insulting story about a reeve, and then the Reeve tells one about a miller. The stories happen to make natural plays. They would even make good sitcoms, FCC permitting. Then again, I think we have laws against broadcasting material as dirty as what Chaucer could write for the English court in the 1300s.
The Miller's Tale, famously, has a scholar and a parish clerk trying to seduce the young wife of a doddering carpenter. The scholar persuades the old man to prepare for a major Noah-style flood. When he builds a scaffold outside his house with the idea of launching a tub of rising floodwaters, and waits in the tub overnight, the scholar, naturally, boffs his wife. The parish clerk also drops by to ask the woman for a kiss. But she doesn't like the clerk, and to make him leave (in the pitch dark), offers him her "nether-eye."
All the action, sex, and funny props make the Miller's Tale automatically colorful, but the cast's performance, not to mention J.U. Nicholson's modern translation, give it an unexpected clarity. Richard Winters plays the Miller as a bearlike boor with a gray-streaked shock of hair and a beard, but he also shows canny sensitivity as the clever, seducing scholar. Sharon Huff plays the wife, or really the Weaver-playing-the-wife, with a nice balance of coquettishness and reserve. William Dean O'Neil as the Reeve seems the most comfortable with his lines, and ages himself expertly to play the decrepit carpenter. Ted Barton strains a little as the parish clerk, but as the Cook (we'll get to the Cook) he's a marvelous imbecile.
The Reeve tells another sitcom-worthy tale about two students who outsmart a dishonest miller. He chases away their horse and steals a good portion of their corn flour, but makes the mistake of boarding the students afterwards in his house, where they take revenge by sleeping with his wife and daughter. The game of musical beds makes the Reeve's Tale as stageable and lively as the Miller's, and the actors do just as well here. Winters roars and fulminates as the bearish miller; O'Neil is well timed and supple as one of the students, and Becky Parker steps in ably to play the Miller's wife. The piece also features the only horse sex I've ever seen onstage (with hobby horses).
After the Reeve's and Miller's Tales -- altogether about two hours long -- we get, with a sense of dread, the Cook's Tale. The Cook is a drunken idiot who keeps interrupting the Miller and the Reeve, and when Ted Barton steps up to recite the story, he makes it seem as if he's making the whole incomprehensible thing up as he goes along -- thickly, dully -- until the Cook falls on his face, dead drunk. It's funny and mercifully short: Chaucer never finished the Cook's Tale.
The largest ongoing hurdle for Geoffrey Chaucer & Co. in this Canterbury Tales project is transcending the Renaissance Faire effect, because people dressed in medieval costumes and reciting archaic verse tend to look like fantasy-fiction enthusiasts, rather than actors. But they are actors, generally quite good ones, and they spend a lot of time and talent trying to revive Chaucer in a natural, accessible style. Lusty Liaisons, in this respect, is a high-water mark.
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