This post is a review of The Canterbury Tales by Tabard Theater, as performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 2009.
For a long time, I think, Chaucer fell into the same trap as Shakespeare: people just took him too seriously. High school English teachers probably bear a lot of blame here. Many of them seem to do their darndest to keep anything from being too much fun.
That was emphatically not a problem with The Canterbury Tales here at the Fringe (note that there are two productions; Justin and I saw the Tabard one). The cast came out with the assumption that everybody knew it was a comedy, and they carried us along by simply refusing not to be funny. They made me laugh at Chaucer the way I feel audiences must have felt about hist stories seven hundred years ago. (If you're not familiar, a word of caution: Chaucer's humor is as bawdy as Jane Austen's is droll. They celebrated that but never crossing the line into TMI territory. The famous butt branding scene, for instance, was suggested by blacking out the lights, and all adultery and fornication was simulated at more than adequate distance, with all clothing intact.
The show was performed as a series of vignettes. Each actor played one of Chaucer's band of pilgrims (the Wife of Bath, the Reeve, Chaucer himself, etc) and served as the narrator of his or her own tale. During the course of the tale, the other pilgrims took on new identities as the characters within the tale and acted out the narration. I was very impressed by the way they constructed so many settings and characters with minimal props and only minor costume changes. Each actor wore black and added accessories to change characters - vests, shawls, and even animal masks to play horses and chickens.
I agree with other reviewers that the Miller, Tom Garner, and the Prioress, Fiona McKenzie, were outstanding. I thought they did an excellent job differentiating their many characters with body language and voice (the Miller was the only one I remember taking on different English accents; Justin estimates it was about four). My favorite, however, was the actor who played the Host, Michael Quirke. Since the Host doesn't have a tale of his own (neither in this production nor in the versions we have of the Canterbury Tales; the versions, however, are incomplete), Quirke had to play the most roles. I liked his unrelenting energy and his complete commitment to whatever part he was in at the time. He blustered as the king, he scratched and preened as a chicken, and he howled as the butt-branded student.
One reviewer made the good point that the actor playing Chaucer showed little variety in his roles, playing every characters as a nervous fidgeter. It did bother me when that was his portrayal of the knight, but I found him so engaging that I just let it slide. I thought the weakest actor was the Reeve. She probably had the most difficult position, as she had to play both male and female roles. Unfortunately, she played every single role with not only the same body language and voice, but a body language and voice that felt affected and unnatural. She had a habit of cocking up her head and sniffing that drove me nuts. During the Wife of Bath's tale, she had on a fake nose that magnified her sniff to the loudest thing on stage. It also would have helped her play both genders had she been wearing a slightly longer and looser shirt - as it was, her midriff poking out when she leaned spoiled the illusion of all of her male characters and her ugly crone character in the Wife of Bath's tale. The Wife of Bath herself was fine but nothing special, which was too bad because she's a very funny character.
When I reviewed Emma, I kvetched about the problems of obstructed views on a thrust stage. It's a pet peeve for me because my high school theater (and middle school theater, for that matter) were like that, surrounded by audiences on three sides, and we worked our buns at blocking to make sure we... well, didn't block. Canterbury Tales was definitely better than Emma in this regard, although helped by the fact that the stage was further away and the risers were higher. But our production only had enough audience to fill one side, so I couldn't see the telltale craning that tips you off that the blocking failed. Since the narrators spent so much time talking from the front, I bet a sold-out performance of this show might be really lousy from the sides.
But that's me being fussy. It really was, at the time, the second best thing we'd seen, behind The Rap Guide to Evolution - where, if you'll check out the comments on my review, you'll see that my review actually got read by the star himself! (Why at the time? Stay tuned for my review of ANOTHER Darwin musical performance!)