There used to be a deli in Detroit called Zukin’s. Owner Walt Zukin was larger than life–big all the way around, with a voice to match, making customers laugh as he held court at the register surrounded by Israeli candy, dill pickles, and sausages. But what impressed me most was his love of Middle English. At the slightest provocation, Zukin would step around the counter, stick his thumbs into his generous waistband, tilt his head, and start reciting Chaucer, fluently and with relish. As a kid I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but I knew it was something great, rich, and earthy.
Geoffrey Chaucer would have loved Walt Zukin. Chaucer was the bad boy of the late 14th century, skewering religion and politics and championing the lives of ordinary people. His best-known work, the Canterbury Tales–unfinished at 17,000 lines–presents a panoramic view of his times by allowing 29 unrelated people, all pilgrims to Canterbury, to tell the stories dear to their hearts. Chaucer only wrote 24 of his planned 120 tales, but he covered a lot of ground in the ones he finished. Written in Middle English verse, the Tales are a masterwork, but also an uphill battle for all but those dedicated students willing to work back to the time before the Great Vowel Shift, which linguists believe occurred sometime between 1400 and 1800, knocking most of the vowel sounds on their ears, never to recover. With John Geist’s Geoffrey Chaucer and Company working diligently to bring the poet to modern audiences, the Tales are now also some of the best theater you’re not seeing. Underadvertised and having difficulties nailing down places to perform, Chaucer and Co. spends its money on talent (Joan Mankin and Jeff Raz have each taken a turn with the company), which means great performances that pop up in unexpected places, from Santa Rosa to the South Bay. And theatergoers who fear a Zukinesque experience will be pleased to find that Geist’s versions of the Tales–as translated by J.U. Nicholson–retain all of the biting wit, social commentary, and bawdiness of the originals, with singing and dancing thrown in for good measure. As a young hipster pal says, Chaucer kicks arse–and nowhere is this more true than in the sure hands of Geist’s cast and crew.
Geist and Becky Parker (the artistic and managing directors, respectively) began their pilgrimage in 1996, planning to bring the Tales to the stage in manageable doses. At first the actors gave fairly straight readings with incidental music. But last year, when the group was commissioned to create a dinner theater performance, they realized the work contained moments “that cried out for a song and dance.” The cast had a great time, the audience loved it, and Geist, who has composed award-winning classical music for groups ranging from the Kronos Quartet to the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, realized that he really liked writing musicals. Upcoming productions will continue to incorporate this approach: October will bring Fortune and the Flattered Cock, a new musical version of the Monk’s and Nun’s Priest’s tales, and Geist is thinking about staging the last tale (tentatively titled All the Sins, and More!) as a gospel musical. All the Sins will be a challenge to shape: the Parson’s Tale, if performed exactly as Chaucer wrote it, runs five hours.
The current incarnation, Wife of Bath: The Musical!, covers the Wife of Bath, the Friar, and the Summoner. The three tell their stories with the help of Hostess Harriet Bailey (Parker) and Pardoner Craig Mason. Mason’s Pardoner gets to have all the fun: humping the ladies, taking a turn as the Devil swishing a tail “as wide as a carrick’s sail,” leading the audience in song. As strong as he was in this role, I could hear him singing “Mack the Knife” or swinging a razor as the Demon Barber–he moves that effortlessly from wide, comic gesture to seductive menace, conveying the Summoner’s damnation with the same ease he shows bouncing the Wife of Bath on his knee. The Wife is no slouch herself: SF Mime Troupe veteran Ellen Brooks carries the meaty role of a much-married woman with a taste for much-younger men with style and verve, and a bit of Elvis in the hips. The Friar (David Abad, showing the same fluidity that distinguished his performance in dancer-choreographer Deborah Ben-Eliezer’s Slave to Salsa) and the Summoner (the suitably weasely Bill Badger) really have it in for each other, circling and snarling and constantly interrupting each other. Chaucer’s disgust with the hypocrisy of both professions is evident–a summoner was essentially a church-sanctioned extortionist, and a friar was a mendicant who promised prayers in return for cash.
The Friar’s tale features a summoner who lives to regret befriending the Devil; then the Summoner retaliates with the story of a sleazy friar who wrings a hilariously unpleasant donation from a parishioner. Taken together, the three Tales, with their smooth staging and clever wordplay, are a painless introduction to Chaucer that doesn’t require a trip to the deli.