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Musical Lit 101 

Stuck in a rut with Geoffrey Chaucer & Co.

Wednesday, Apr 25 2001
For some reason all I've seen lately are musicals. This is not by choice: The city is plagued with them. In the last month or so I've seen most of my favorite myths and characters put to music for some interesting or silly reason -- Mae West, Bobby Fischer, Floyd Collins (who died in a cave), William Lee (from Burroughs' Queer), Io and Prometheus (in a very funny Art Street show), and, of course, the Wife of Bath, who's famous not just for her sexual appetite but also for an overlong prologue in Chaucerian Middle English. The only show that could end such a strange run of musical subjects is a Broadway production of a delicate, limpid short story from one of my old literature textbooks -- say, James Joyce's "The Dead" -- which, as it happens, will be here in the fall.

Geoffrey Chaucer & Co. has been adapting portions of The Canterbury Tales since 1996, and when all 24 tales are finished the company plans to mount them together in a monthlong festival. But the troupe has been stuck in a holding pattern recently. Instead of forging ahead with one last tale (the Pardoner's) and then the mammoth task of the festival, it has started reworking older shows into musicals. Maybe this is to keep us entertained, or to keep the composer, John Geist, busy; either way the results are a little odd.

The Wife of Bath reels off a fairy tale about a knight of King Arthur's who rapes a pretty young virgin. Arthur wants to behead him, but his queen intercedes. She offers clemency on one condition: if, within a year, the knight can answer the vexing question, "What do women really want?" The knight rides out and interviews all kinds of women, who tell him that women want clothes. Or money. Or good looks. Or "lust abed!/ Often to be widowed and re-wed!" Nothing quite convinces him until he meets a twisted old crone. "We ancient folk know many things," she rasps, and offers to reveal the life-saving secret on one further condition. If she's right, he owes her a big (undetermined) favor. The answer he returns to the queen is that women want "sovereignty over their husbands," and the queen, being honest, lets him go.

So he owes the crone a favor: She wants to marry him. Because his taste is for virgins, the knight resists, but the old woman insists. Chaucer & Co. manages a nice effect in this part of the story by showing the knight and his old lady on their wedding bed. He really, really doesn't want to have sex with her -- and we sympathize, not because Becky Parker is old or ugly but because she plays a withered old lady so well. The illusion of being seduced by a hag is powerful. The story ends like a myth: As soon as the knight kisses her, the old woman becomes beautiful and young, like the warty fairy-tale frog that turns into a prince.

The tale has a psychological resonance unrelated to gender politics. Chaucer's point -- and the Wife's -- is the reward waiting for the person who can see beyond appearances. Chaucer & Co. respects this point but doesn't emphasize it, and the crone's transformation is an anticlimax.

Turning it into a musical also adds little to the story. Parker has an excellent voice and ends the tale with a song, but Ellen Brooks does the most nuanced and expressive work, without singing, as the Wife. She would be a pleasure to watch the whole way through if her speeches weren't so long. Her overlong prologue is the real problem with "The Wife of Bath" as a play; the presence or absence of music seems beside the point.

Along with "The Wife of Bath's Tale" the troupe performs tales by the Friar and the Summoner, a pair of stories that amounts to a duel. The Friar tells an unflattering story about a Summoner who makes a deal with the devil, and the Summoner tells an even less flattering story about a Friar and an enormous fart. Bill Badger does strong work as the cagey and sacrilegious Summoner, dancing and singing when he needs to dance and sing, in a desiccated old man way. But the music also takes center stage in these tales, and John Geist's sophisticated, sometimes atonal experiments with melody don't always work. He does play interesting games with round-singing and counterpoint, and it's not that the cast -- including Craig Mason (as the Pardoner), who flaunts his Broadway experience -- can't perform it all well. It's that the total effect is boring.


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