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Pilgrim's Progress Report 

Wednesday, Aug 25 1999
For three years, Geoffrey Chaucer & Co. has been rehearsing and presenting The Canterbury Tales almost in order, one and sometimes two at a time, in slow preparation for a summer festival next year, when the month of June at the Alcazar will be booked with a full run of all 24 plays. Chaucer's great unfinished heap of manuscripts was supposed to be an English Decameron -- a distant imitation of Boccaccio's hundred stories -- so the troupe is damn lucky he died when he did. If he'd lived to finish his Tales the task of staging them all would probably take 20 years. As it is, a few actors have "crashed and burned," according to one member; and last month some idiot in Berkeley stole the theater company's van, which was packed with $14,000 in costumes, lights, and props.

The plays Chaucer & Co. have staged aren't always brilliant. Some tales, like the Knight's, have worked as colorful solo shows, brimming with lively characters for an actor to inhabit. Others don't belong onstage. Each production opens with a refresher on the General Prologue to remind the audience that the Tales are a contest among pilgrims, and that a Host (or Hostess, in this case) from an inn has offered a free meal to the most instructive and amusing storyteller. In the "The Tale of Sir Thopas and Tale of Melibee," the character "Chaucer" himself steps up to bid for the prize.

This pair of stories highlights what works and what doesn't onstage. "Thopas" is a fun, goofy fragment in mock-heroic doggerel: Young Sir T. rides out looking for an elfin queen, but meets a three-headed giant instead. Chaucer fills his story with all the clichés of heroism and horrible beasts, and the troupe has a good time playing these up. David Weinberg, as Thopas, pompously mounts his imaginary horse and rides into the forest while three dancing lasses (from the Marin Ballet) celebrate his vigor. The dancers pose together to make an improbably pretty three-headed giant, Sir Oliphant, who threatens to kill Sir T.' s horse. Thopas rides away, prepares for a duel, and pompously mounts his steed the next morning, armor flashing --

"No more of this, for God's sake!" the Hostess cries. "Thy rhyming is not worth a turd." So Chaucer has to think of another tale. He shifts from the sensationalistic Sir T. to the parable of Melibee, which lapses into theological debate. Melibee is a rich gentleman whose wife and daughter have been attacked by brigands. He wants to hack his enemies to bits. But Prudence, his wife, counsels prudence. She gives a wise and meticulously reasoned argument about Christian mercy, all while mending Melibee's clothes and kneading dough. Becky Parker illuminates the sermon, as Prudence, by shaping the dough into phallic rolls and hacking them apart with a knife (to stress her points about violence and male pride), while Weinberg, as Melibee, mischievously picks raisins and bits of dough from his uncooked supper. But no amount of clever staging can mollify the fact that most of "Melibee" is a speech. It's tedious, and the strain to make it dramatic wears on both actors.

"The Lawyer's Tale" is better. A Man of Law, in pillowed silk robe and huge crucifix, wearing a slightly Middle Eastern-style rolled hat, steps up to tell about the Sultan of Syria, who turns his back on Mohammedism in order to marry the fair Lady Constance from Rome. For this blasphemy his jealous mother orders servants to slaughter the Sultan and all his crew at the wedding. Lady Constance survives, but her mother-in-law sends her drifting on a rudderless ship across the Mediterranean, until she manages, somehow, to get stranded on the coast of Britain. Through another bloody disaster she becomes an English queen. But the English Queen Mother has her loaded, again, onto a boat, this time with a newborn prince. The tale ends happily, but Lady Constance has a very rough time, and the Man of Law proves himself to be a long-winded bastard, which I suppose is appropriate for a lawyer.

This piece has strong ensemble acting, especially by Nicol Foster, the Weaver pilgrim, who plays Lady Constance. Foster does Constance with a delicate meekness that never seems overdone, even producing tears when she leaves her Italian parents. Terry Lamb, ordinarily the Knight, plays both Sultan and British king with authority; David Weinberg, the Knight's Yeoman, is funny in a few different roles; and Wendell Willat does solid work as not just the narrating Man of Law but also a messenger who keeps getting drugged.

It's funny to watch Madeline Lacques-Aranda come back three times as Lady Constance' s nemesis (first as the Sultan's mom, then as Lucifer, then as the Queen Mother); the casting decision is obvious but it adds something to the text, and gives a constancy to Lady Constance's persecution. Becky Parker, as always, plays the Hostess; her acting has matured with this project and she seems a lot more comfortable than she did in "The Knight's Tale" two years ago.

Both of these pieces premiered in '96 or '97, but they've been fleshed out with more actors, and the group is reprising them briefly before moving on to new pieces early next year. "The Knight's Tale," playing this weekend, has also been expanded. Two years ago I saw what was basically a solo version, and wrote, "Terry Lamb plays the knight, which is to say he plays the knight playing the Theban brothers Arcite and Palamon, their enemy Theseus, his sister-in-law Emily, and four or five gods from Mount Olympus." It was a tour de force. Now he'll have fewer characters, and less of a line load, and the tale should look more like a play.

Anny J.' s vivid costumes consist of pointy boots, tunics, hauberks, and mail. John Geist's original music involves (mostly) unobtrusive folk tunes from Olde England, played on a synthesizer. Actors hoist goblets, tell of gaie adventures, and sometimes can't, as a result, keep from looking and sounding like a Renaissance Faire matinee. The group's determination to stage all the stories sometimes leads it into deep theatrical water; but the level of acting its members maintain, the clear translation of the verse, and the humor and energy the actors put into handing the poem-cycle back to its fictitious oral tradition make The Canterbury Tales one of the most formidable revival projects in the Bay Area.


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