You think we’re living in a licentious society? Try the 14th century, where, between the fornication, flatulence and haphazard violence, it was like a “Lethal Bodkin” version of “The Sopranos.” The difference was, in the 1300s, a bit of prayer was offered up before (or after) lopping off someone’s head, copulating with the neighbor’s wife, or committing any sort of calumny.
The Middle Ages are brought to sacred and scatological life in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s earthy adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” which follows a wildly disparate cross section of medieval religious pilgrims who vie in a storytelling competition on their way to Canterbury.
A protean cast of 20 assumes more than 200 characters to dramatize 18 of Chaucer’s tales. The undertaking is so enormous that it requires two parts (three hours each) and three directors — Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatward, and Jonathan Munby. Not many theater companies could pull off such a feat, but the RSC does so stylishly and with bracing candor and impudence.
The two parts are self-contained, and each includes an equal ration of filth and sanctimony. While it isn’t necessary to attend all six hours, there are treasures in both. To only see Part One means missing the hearty feminist brio of The Wife of Bath’s Tale, the grave beauty of the Physician’s Tale, and the tongue-in-cheek opera buffoonery of The Manciple’s Tale. Seeing only Part Two means giving up the dark theatricality of the racist “The Prioress’s Tale,” the merry scatological excesses of the Miller’s and Reeve’s tales, and the inspired puppetry found in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.
The structure of “The Canterbury Tales” is faithful to Chaucer’s text, with each tale told one after the other in their original sequence. The set-ups are identical, as each traveler steps up for his or her turn in the spotlight. And although some tales are simply narrated while others are given full-blown treatment, a sameness creeps in and you wish for some degree of interweaving.
Mike Poulton’s adaptation has only a smattering of Middle English, but retains the flavor of the language and the often forced rhymed couplets, which has the actors pausing for comic effect as they rhyme “pilgrim-ah-age” with “cour-ah-ge.”
A hilarious attempt at giving the tales street cred occurs in Part Two, where the character of Chaucer (the excellent Mark Hadfield) gets down with his bad self in a hip-hop rendition of his Tale of Sir Thopas that comes complete with a trio of booty-shaking backup singers.
The baseness of “The Canterbury Tales” is its greatest asset, and the classically trained troupe of actors throw themselves into the depictions of bathroom humor and boudoir antics (although here, most of the sexual congress takes place in meadows, barns and up against any available surface) as if performing “King Lear.” Michael Jibson, Barry McCarthy, and Michael Matus, in particular, seem to be having a high time in low places.
When required to pull their pants up, the cast seamlessly makes the switch to more high-minded pursuits, especially Katherine Tozer, who beautifully plays a variety of fair maidens whose constancy gets sorely tested as they endure beheadings and the abduction of their children at the hands of men.
Paola Dionisotti is also exemplary as a nun so impassioned about religion that she is blind to the poison of her anti-Semitism, and as a wise crone who is not above a tumble with a much younger man.
Those with a modern view of womanhood may want to give Chaucer a thump on the noggin for his portrayal of females as either nobly obedient lumps or lusty slatterns on the prowl. A measure of balance comes in the form of The Wife of Bath (portrayed with sunny appetite by Claire Benedict), who is unapologetic about her sensuality and the brash pragmatism of her view of the sexes.
“The Canterbury Tales” aimed to show the different levels of 14th-century society uniting, however briefly, in the shared pursuit of piety and a roaring good story. The Royal Shakespeare Company has captured Chaucer’s high purpose and low comedy with all the earth, wind and fire intact.
WHAT: “The Canterbury Tales,” by Geoffrey Chaucer, adaptation by Mike Poulton
WHERE: Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through May 7.
TICKETS: $25 to $78