New Vic's 'Canterbury Tales' opts for Chaucer's bawdier side

Any theatrical production of Geoffrey Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales'' is bound to include the author's bawdy side if faithful to the tone of this unbuttoned English classic.

The New Vic Theater of London, however, has out-Chaucered Chaucer in a production of the tales which just finished a run here at the Ford's Theatre and is now on a cross-country tour.

There are some merry, funny, and moving moments in New Vic's version of Chaucer's tales of pilgrims setting out to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury and entertaining each other with stories along the way. But the production too often disintegrates into a ribaldry and coarseness that demean Chaucer's reputation as ''The father of English literature.''

The opening-night audience at Ford's was on stage from the moment it entered: Playgoers were greeted by members of the cast like the Vicar (Anthony Milner), wearing a long, brown brocade robe and pious smile as he shook their hands. Occasionally cast members got into character a bit too much for comfort, as one brunette young theatergoer discovered when Mickey O'Donoghue as the randy Miller wrestled her to the ground in what looked like a friendly mugging. O'Donoghue, dressed in brown knitted chain mail and cap, resembled a king-sized Ewok. The audience was also invited up on stage before the play began and frequently between tales, to sip punch and buy T-shirts or buttons with the New Vic logo on them. At one point, a chase scene sent the Miller fleeing into the audience, which hid him from the chasee with great glee.

The uneven quality of the evening was evident in the discrepancy between the touching Knight's Tale of courtly love in ancient Greece - acted with finesse by Derek Hollis - and the raucous smuttiness of the Miller's Tale. In this New Vic production, incidentally, Chaucer is jazzed up with songs that never made the medieval hit parade, like ''Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.'' The best of the tales told was that of the legendary wife of Bath, delightfully played by Colette Stevenson, with its riddle of: What is it that women most desire? The answer in the New Vic version is of course in modern English, a translation of Chaucer's ''Women desire to have sovereigntee/ As well over hir husband as hir love/ And for to been in maistry him above.''

Director Michael Bogdanov kept the pace lively throughout but too often treated Chaucer like a series of raunchy one-liners in a traveling vaudeville act. The New Vic players have performed throughout Britain with the Royal Shakespeare, Old Vic, and National Theater companies. The current tour takes the troupe to Michigan State University, University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin , Iowa State University, Trinity College, Dartmouth, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Houston.

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