- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote The droughte of March hath perced to the roote …”

When 14th-century bard Geoffrey Chaucer wrote that the month of April with its “shoures soote” (sweet showers) and “smale foweles maken melodye” (singing birds) inspired folks to go on saintly pilgrimages to “straunge strondes” (foreign lands), he could have been talking about the Royal Shakespeare Company, which crosses the pond with its new two-part adaptation of “The Canterbury Tales” to play the Kennedy Center tomorrow through May 7.

“The Canterbury Tales” — all 6½ hours of it — provides a snapshot of the Middle Ages in its depiction of disparate pilgrims staving off travel boredom with a storytelling contest — the medieval equivalent of singing “Three Cheers for the Bus Driver” or counting Volkswagens. An earthy and oft-married wife, a courtly knight and a raunchy miller are among the tale-spinners.

Lest you think the 14th century was all lutes and forsooths, the stories are rife with adultery, flatulence and debauchery of all predilections. Mike Poulton’s adaptation has Chaucer himself busting a bodkin as he raps the introduction, surrounded by a posse of medieval prostitutes.

There were 29 sojourners in Chaucer’s epic poem, but a cast of 20 travels to Washington, where they assume more than 100 characters to bring 19 of the ribald and religious tales to life. The gargantuan endeavor required not one, but three directors — Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby.

“Three directors, very strange — I never did that before,” says cast member Barry McCarthy, who plays the Host and Nun’s Priest, among other roles in the production. “There were three separate rehearsal rooms, and what a pressure and nightmare it was to rehearse — scrambled brains time. We didn’t know if we were coming or going, but then we began to sort it out.”

“The Canterbury Tales” toured the ice rinks, sports halls and leisure centers of Britain in February and March in the company’s mobile, self-contained thrust-stage theater, which has everything required to present a play — even seating for 500. (The joke has it that all you need to have the RSC come to your town is an outlet to plug in the whole thing.)

“We performed it over 100 times on tour, and still we’d be waiting in the wings and saying to each other, ‘Are you sure you should be wearing that?’ ” Mr. Munby recalls.

The directors had 10 weeks’ rehearsal, which seems like a luxury, but not for a 6½-hour show. “It was insane,” he says. “The amount of movement, music and dance alone was enormous — there were 12-hour days seven days a week to get it done, since we rehearsed all the tales simultaneously. So it was like doing 19 one-act plays.”

The demands on the actors were daunting. “We definitely took them out of their comfort zone,” Mr. Munby says, “but they got into it and said the process reminded them of being in drama school — you get to play a chicken, then a murderous Jew, and then do a bit of shadow puppetry.”

At times, it reminded them of the actor’s nightmare, in which you’re onstage dressed as Hamlet but tonight’s play is “Death of a Salesman.”

“Extraordinary things happened onstage,” Mr. Munby confides. “Often I’d find an actor in the wrong costume in the wrong part. And we also learned that the Prioress’ Tale can happen without the Prioress being there at all.”

Mr. McCarthy calls “The Canterbury Tales” one of the most taxing jobs he has ever had. “When you do both shows in one day, you wake up the next morning and feel you’ve been hit on the head with a sandbag,” he says.

The trio of directors will be traveling to Washington because the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater has a proscenium stage that requires restaging and re-rehearsing.

“The tales themselves are so vastly different in tone and style that the directors brought a different language to each set of tales,” Mr. Munby says. “Greg [Doran] was drawn to the puppetry, Rebecca [Gatward] was attracted to the Wife of Bath’s tale especially, and as the sole woman director, wanted to redress the sexual politics of the piece. And I wanted to contribute a physical, emotional approach to storytelling.”

Mr. Munby’s directing experience includes opera, and the murderous Manciple’s Tale took on baroque shadings. “The Prioress’s Tale is also extraordinary — full of bigotry and anti-Semitism — a Christian propaganda thriller,” he continues. “Some aspects of 14th-century England are very hard to stomach, and we don’t censor or edit anything, nor did Chaucer. And so ‘The Canterbury Tales’ provide a panoramic view of medieval England.”

To guide modern audiences to the 1300s, Mr. Poulton’s adaptation retains Chaucer’s inverse couplets (and a smattering of Middle English) but has taken the introduction and the tales’ prologues and created a framework so people can get to know the individual pilgrims. “The stories are absolutely embedded in the storytellers,” Mr. Munby explains. “The two go hand in hand.”

The Kennedy Center has stressed that each of the two parts of “The Canterbury Tales” stands on its own, and they do not need to be seen in a single sitting. Still, Mr. McCarthy says, rewards await those with the time — and endurance — to do so all in one day.

“Quite a lot of people opt for the marathon, and I think there are plusses and minuses both ways,” he says, “but seeing it all at once, you get back an incomparable emotional experience. At the end of Part Two is a beautiful hymn, a spectacularly sung hymn. It is a great finish to a long day — for both the actors and the audience.”

“The Canterbury Tales” plays the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre tomorrow through May 7. Tickets range from $25 to $78. Call 202/467-4600 for information and a performance schedule.

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