Theater Review - Shakespeare Tavern goes medieval on your ass with silly Canterbury Tales

Theater troupe turns Chaucer classic into brew-ha-ha

“The Miller’s Tale,” one of the most scandalous episodes of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, culminates with adultery, flatulence, and a red-hot poker’s intrusion in the least welcome place imaginable. Everyone appreciates a good joke, but the bawdy humor isn’t what elevates The Canterbury Tales to the level of literature. In addition to Chaucer’s narrative gifts and insight into human nature, his command of Middle English not only made The Canterbury Tales a cornerstone of the canon, but arguably advanced the language itself.

John Stephens’ adaptation of The Canterbury Tales, now playing at the Shakespeare Tavern, features the essential events of six tales and their prologues, updated with accessible, sing-songy rhymed verse and modern details. Here, Chaucer’s tale-swapping pilgrims become tourists riding a bus to Canterbury. The Canterbury Tales’ irreverent approach to a classic perfectly suits the Tavern’s audience, who clearly appreciates rowdy comedy and literary references. Purists may wish for fewer puppets and better accents, but can still find a few chuckles.

Stephens originally adapted The Canterbury Tales for Atlanta’s Theatre Gael, which staged a sharper but equally silly production in the late 1990s. Stephens’ version renders “The Miller’s Tale” as an overheated Italian melodrama, complete with a nod to The Godfather and a lovelorn monk (Matt Felten) crooning “That’s Amore” and “Volare.” “The Reeve’s Tale” becomes a spaghetti western, complete with a preposterous shoot-out. Tales from the Wife of Bath and the Franklin feature knights and their ladies, fitting the Tavern’s Renaissance Fair vibe. (The weekend I attended, Tavern stalwart Laura Cole was out of the country and replaced by Maureen Yasko, who made for a sexy, if overly young, Wife of Bath.)

Ironically, the most effective piece may be the least comedic. “The Pardoner’s Tale” offers a grim cautionary story about greed as three ruffians seek to kill Death, only to turn on each other after finding a treasure. Felten effectively portrays the Pardoner as a slick, dead-eyed yuppie salesman. The piece’s fatalistic tone does justice to the content of the original story. A parody of The Seventh Seal might have gone over some heads, however.

Some of the tales lack the “Pardoner’s” clarity. A story recounted by a nun (Amee Vyas) drags on forever, features multiple endings, and confusingly sets the devout, ruler-waving narrator against Chaucer’s libidinous content. On the other hand, “The Nun’s Priest Tale” features two actors (Rivka Levin and Mike Niedzwiecki) doing a tango dressed as poultry in one of the evening’s funniest moments. Perhaps that provides the acid test: If you prefer your Chaucer to be free of guys in rooster costumes, the Tavern’s Canterbury Tales may not be for you.