Adapted by Zadie Smith
From The Wife of Bath by Geoffrey Chaucer
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
A Kiln Theatre Production
American Repertory Theater
February 25 – March 17, 2023
With Marcus Adolphy (Winston, Mandela Black Jesus), Goerge Eggay (Pastor, Eldridge), Andrew Frame (Ian, Socrates, Bartosz), Troy Glasgow (Darren, Young Maroon), Claudia Grant (Polly, Sophie), Nikita Johal (Asma, Kelly), Scott Miller (Ryan, Colin), Jessica Murrain (Author, Zaire, Queen Nanny), Clare Perkins (Alvita, The Wife of Willesden), Ellen Thomas (Aunty P, Old Wife)
The Wife of Bath is an episode from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales which does two things: it enables, in a very long prologue, for the principal character, Alisoun, to wax on about her personal experience with marriage and sexuality, and then, in the enclosed tale, to weave a moral odyssey about a male character who is forced to try to find out what women really want. The Wife of Willesden is a contemporary version of the tale that is set in London and follows the same general format, with a principal black female character renamed Alvita telling of her sexual adventures and marriages and then relating a moral tale set in Jamaica.
An introduction to this play is offered by a character simply called Author (Jessica Murrain) who sets the scene and very much takes on the stance of the play’s real author, Zadie Smith. She quite rapidly passes the baton to Alvita (Clare Perkins) who becomes the main expositor in the prologue and the narrator of the internal tale. Everything is set in an expansive cocktail bar with more bottles than anyone has ever seen in one such place, and the stage is filled throughout with the characters who populate the bar and who play in the various episodes in the prologue and in the internal tale. The expansive set is striking, and, as the play continues throughout its hour and a half without intermission, it lights up in all sorts of interesting ways. Much of the cast is onstage throughout, ready to participate in the narrative, particularly in the prologue which travels from one episode to another in the teller’s life without lots of transition time.
The overall effect of this quite detailed and somewhat parallel adaptation of the original is a combination of episodic exuberance and periods of somewhat confusingly interlaced narrative. It may well be the case that those who are intimately familiar with the original The Wife of Bath would make the transition to the modern setting and would be able to follow its contemporary version of the stories more easily. In theatrical terms, the transition is a little more challenging because the narrative, especially in the prologue, slips so easily from place to place, making it quite difficult to stage in a coherent and persuasive way. Though Perkins, as Alvita, gives it her all and has a wad-full of lines to declaim, it’s hard to hold them all in place as things unfold, especially in the prologue. That prologue, as in the original, is very long and takes up a good chunk of the episode. When the internal tale finally rolls around, its narrative is a bit more straightforward and considerably easier to understand.
The staging is sometimes truly wonderful, with lively dance numbers sprinkled throughout. Those are the times when the production comes most alive. And there are, as well, the kinds of staging pyrotechnics for which the ART is well known. In this case, in addition to the expansive and overwhelmingly well stocked bar that represents the main set, there is incredibly dramatic lighting that pops into action at many intervals throughout.
The company works well together, generally. Jessica Murrain, in addition to carrying the role of Author, which shows up principally at the beginning and the end, carries the role of Queen Nanny in the internal tale and she bears that role elegantly as well. As Aunty P and the Old Wife, Ellen Thomas rises to the occasion notably.
This is an interesting experiment and it’s curious to wonder whether the expansiveness of the stage in this production makes it seem a bit less contained and less suited to the telling of a tale in an intimate conversational setting than might be the case in a smaller venue. It might simply be the case that author Zadie Smith’s dedication to create a faithful and quite complete and parallel text to the original overwhelms the narrative. The exuberance, pride and determination of the principal character, Alvita, certainly comes through, but the arrays of words she offers sometime transition so rapidly, with so many characters sidling in to enact them, that the verbal renderings of her strong qualities get lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, this is a valiant, and at times compelling, update of the original that has considerable gusto and pizzazz at intervals throughout.
– BADMan (aka Charles Munitz)
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