Frying Chaucer

Someone asked me the other day what I want for Christmas, and I didn't have to think very long before replying that I want no one in Arizona--no one in the world--to make the mistake of attending the horrible play I sat through the other night in Mesa.

I had pretty high hopes for Unlikely Theater Company's production of Canterbury Street, mostly because it has an attractive enough premise: Would-be playwright Jeremy Venema has contemporized four of Geoffrey Chaucer's better-known Canterbury Tales, presumably to make some point about the timelessness of misogyny and the battle of the sexes.

Instead of insights, though, Venema treats us to a Cliff's Notes of the original tales; his primary contribution is to make Chaucer's bawdy 14th-century stories into spiritless sitcoms that lead nowhere. In Venema's versions, the misfits of The Wife of Bath have become a lawyer with a piggish movie star client who's being tried for rape; the outcast offspring of The Clerk's Tale are now banished house pets. Big deal.

If it takes guts to concoct a comedy whose principals are based on legendary literary characters, then taking on this intimidating task is Venema's last act of bravery. Not one of his four stories adds anything to the original, and slapping a 20th-century social framework onto the past is hardly revelatory. Nearly every one of his scenes is inessential or needlessly cute, and some--like the barroom blackout in which Chaucer himself makes a brief appearance--are downright confounding. Perhaps in homage to Chaucer's occasionally coarse prose, Venema works the word "fuck" into every other sentence, but relies on otherwise tame expletives ("turd butt" was my least favorite) elsewhere. The most fun I had during this interminable amateur hour-and-a-half was arguing with my companion over which was worse: the writing or the acting.

Then again, there was the direction. After 20 minutes of watching wanna-be actors stumble over scenery and dialogue, I found my mind wandering. I tried to imagine where Victoria Safriet got her directorial inspiration, such as it was. Who, I wondered, suggested that her actors should pace the length of the stage in nearly every scene? And where did she discover the stage direction that goes, "Glance out into the audience every couple of minutes while you're reciting your lines"?

It's hard to determine who suffers most from this terrible travesty: fans of Chaucer, whose stories are twisted into senseless modern-day mundanities; the audience, rooked into paying for and then sitting through this mess; or the folks up on stage, who will have to live down their plodding performances in this horror show.

On the other hand, none of the players appears to know just how terrible he or she is. The performances are so consistently clownish that, after a while, they begin to make sense. Perhaps, I reasoned, the lovers are meant to appear passionless; maybe this is the playwright's commentary on medieval romance. And it's possible that, 600 years ago, it was customary for people to stare at the floor while they addressed one another.

I was sorry to see Mary Kay Zeeb--who's shown promise in small plays elsewhere and was delightful in this same company's production of Mission earlier this year--caught up in this claptrap. As the lawyer in The Wife of Bath, Zeeb struggles with lame direction and dimwitted dialogue, and ultimately fails. She spends most of the time onstage looking uncomfortable and more than a little bored.

After a while, I gave up trying to make sense of this dour literary lesson and concentrated instead on the Rob Zombie concert blaring from a nearby arena. At times, Zombie's metal mantras were more audible than the actors up on stage, a fact that not one audience member seemed to mind. I certainly didn't.

The curtain finally fell on the mess, though not quickly enough for this Chaucer fan. The nicest thing I can say about Canterbury Street is that it's short. At a little more than 90 minutes, this resistible play lasts about as long--and is about as much fun--as your average root canal. Run screaming.

Canterbury Street continues through December 12 at Mesa Arts Center, 155 North Center.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela