Theatre Canterbury Tales at the Loeb Ex last weekend
EVERYBODY'S got problems. Leonard Bernstein has problems, Samuel P. Huntngton has problems. A director seeking to adapt the Canterbury Tales for the stage has his share of headaches, too. But Laurence Bergreen, director of the Loeb Experimental Theatre production of Canterbury Tales has managed to deal with his problems in a way others might envy.
In Bergreen's case,, he was faced with the fact that drama imposes limits that no other literary form is forced to meet. The dramatist must work within the limits of dialogue and characterization, and cannot, like the novelist or poet, rely on narrative or third person of character to create his world. Fortunately, the Canterbury Tales are inherently dramatic, but there are symbols in them that are too large for an actor to handle because of the limitations of the human presence.
Then there is the problem of doing a "classic." The audience brings to a classic work of literature preconceptions about its meaning that a director who wishes us to see the work in a new light must overcome. Too often directors have chosen cheap devices to make a work "relevant" that undercut the universality of appeal that makes a work a classic in the first place. Thus, if a director chooses to make Hamlet an alienated student radical, the audience becomes aware of the trick and the subtleties of Hamlet's character are lost in the shuffle. Hamlet becomes only a student radical, and not, as he is, a man whose very complexity is his greatest appeal.
Laurence Bergreen has chosen the "story theatre" concept of staging to overcome these problems, and, on the whole, he has produced a Canterbury Tales that surmounts the obstacles that might have ruined it. Story theatre involves the use of a narrator and a company that mimes and participates in the tale that is told. The form and the text are suited perfectly to each other-in fact, it is hard to imagine the Canterbury Tales being staged in any other way.
Bergreen has chosen the tales he dramatizes well. He has tried to create the whole of Chaucer's vision on stage. Chaucer's world is bawdy and pious. With the bawdy tales Bergreen is totally successful. His Miller's Tale preserves the irreverence and bite of the original by relying on the resources of voice and movement his actors bring to their performance. Dan Chiel as the Miller is superb, transmitting the drunken essence of the Miller's character by use of his voice alone.
With the pious tales Bergreen is somewhat less at ease. The Pardoner's Tale is a Chaucerian masterpiece because of the power of the image of the old man who waylays the three revelers on their way to conquer death. The old man in the original is the grim figure of death himself. On stage, the impact of his appearance is lost. It is an impossible task for an actor to become death, or the emblem of death. On the printed page, the image is a powerful one. On stage, the figure becomes faintly comic.
Similarly, the Second Nun's Tale, the story of St. Cecilia, is the representation to Chaucer of the finest in medieval piety. However, that piety has long since disappeared from our culture. Bergreen works hard to give tale the impact it once had. He has his company highlight the story with a musical accompaniment that is both medieval and reflective. It is a fine touch, and Marie Kohler as St. Cecilia gives a concinving performance. Virginity, however, is no longer an issue, and St. Cecilia's efforts to preserve her maidenhead seem more fit for laughter than for pious reflection.
Bergreen's company is, on the whole excellent. His actors know how to move and are sensitive to the subtleties of their charatcer's personalities. They have problems with diction, but their exuberance overcomes their vocal inadequacies. Only Eleanor Druckman as the Wife of Bath gives a performance that is in any sense second-rate. She is more a wide-mouthed Sandy Dennis than a gap-toothed and lusty wench.
Theatre at Harvard has too often been conventional, drab, and second-rate. Directors and actors have been unwilling to take a chance on failing, with the result that anything not time-honored and safe is ignored. Productions often display that lack of imagination that leads critics to lament the death of theatre as an art form. It is refreshing, then, to see a production like Bergreen's that takes chances and succeeds. The theatre at Harvard needs productions that do not mistake convention for art. Canterbury Tales is a step in the right direction.