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Imitation may still be the sincerest form of flattery, but to judge from what’s been knocking around D.C. stages of late, adaptation must be a close second. The city’s theaters have been awash in freshly considered classics—Molière dripping with 21st-century irony, a ballet flick reconceived as an occasion for krumping and hip-hop, Aeschylus offering battlefield commentary across two millennia, not to mention more established musical reworkings of Dumas, Oz, and Faust. This week brings Chaucer rendered in modern verse, Shakespeare punk’d, Molnár tweaked by Wodehouse.
It’s all very theatrical and nowhere with more elaborate artifice than in the Ferenc Molnár/P.G. Wodehouse confection, The Play’s the Thing, which begins with three men in dinner jackets debating how best to start a play. One of them laments that even a scene beginning with three men in dinner jackets must get through all sorts of expository chatter about who, where, what, and when before the playwright can get to the hows and whys of drama.
“Think how much simpler it would be,” he says, “if we were to cut out all that stuff and just introduce ourselves.” And then, with his cohorts looking somewhat embarrassed as he breaches the fourth wall, he does just that.
The device is pure Molnár—amusing, unpredictable, theatrical—but the words and attitudes are Wodehouse, and not just because the most dithering of the three men onstage could be Bertie Wooster’s cousin, or because they’re soon joined by a relentlessly smiling butler whose name is all-but-unpronounceable but who might as well be Jeeves. The Hungarian Molnár, although he spent his last 16 years in the United States, never learned to speak English, so nearly all his best-known works have reached American audiences in adapted form—as the basis for the libretto for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, for instance, or for Billy Wilder’s comedy One, Two, Three.
Játék a Kastélyban (A Play at the Castle) has been adapted twice, once by Wodehouse as The Play’s the Thing in 1926 and again nearly six decades later by Tom Stoppard in a seagoing variation called Rough Crossing. In this landlubber version, a young composer is working on a starring vehicle for his fiancée when he overhears her being wooed by a married actor she dated before their engagement. The composer falls into a deep funk, and his collaborators realize he’ll never be able to complete the score. Then one of them decides to convince the composer that what he overheard was his fiancée rehearsing a scene with her ex. Misunderstandings blossom, actors throw tantrums, authors complicate complications, and hangers-on misconstrue. It’s formulaic fun, and it gives Wodehouse plenty of excuses to shatter that fourth wall. His onstage playwrights perform three different curtain scenes before he’s willing to bring up the houselights at intermission.
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John MacDonald’s staging takes a while to get going at Washington Stage Guild but builds up a nice head of comic steam by the time the cast is frantically interrupting itself during a run-through of the play-within-a-play. The performances are fun if not always subtle. Bill Largess and Lawrence Redmond play a pair of mismatched playwrights as a vaudeville team know-it-all and his clueless buddy, both forever trying to calm Chris Davenport’s fluttering, sputtering airhead of a composer. As the two-timing performers who’ve been caught in the act, Jennifer Timberlake and Conrad Feininger serve up seasoned ham stylishly, while Jeff Baker smiles so incessantly as the hotel’s butler that his single frown, late in the evening, registers as hilarious. Michael Glenn’s showbiz-besotted secretary doesn’t enter the action until the last of its three acts but steals scenes giddily thereafter, sporting glasses thick as Coke bottles and an even thicker lisp. Happily, by that time, Molnár’s play has made such a good case that it really is “the thing” that it’s easy to see why the amanuensis would be stage-struck.
You might have heard that The Canterbury Tales clocks in at six hours (across two evenings) at the Kennedy Center and that it involves 20 of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s more accomplished farceurs doing wickedly entertaining work. You might also have heard that this is so much of a good thing that catching just half of it could be an acceptable strategy—if, say, you’re on a tight budget, or if you’re not a Chaucerian completist.
I don’t entirely disagree—three hours qualifies as a heaping helping of poetic couplets even when accompanied by comic onstage coupling—but there’s a problem with settling for one sitting at this Chaucerian feast: You’ll deny yourself some pretty substantial pleasures.
Choose the first evening, for instance, and you won’t hear the late-Medieval tale that morphs into a hip-hop ditty or meet a woman who inspires the altering of an entire coastline while engaging in the loveliest shadow-dancing ever. You’ll miss a lusty Wife of Bath (the superb Claire Benedict) expounding wryly in a West Indian accent on why the passing of five husbands has left her hungry for a sixth, and you’ll never know just how festively a lass might be humped in a treetop. Nor will you hear the chorale that concludes this epic pilgrimage on a note of genuine transcendence.
But opt for the second evening, and you’ll miss the actorly smirk that makes an unexpected ladder-windmill effect hilarious and never hear a poultry-puppet chorus that’s way too suggestive to call up comparisons with Sesame Street. You’ll skip a rousing rendition of “I Have a Gentle Cock,” complete with the singer’s invitation to a first-row patron to stroke his, er, instrument. You’ll also miss a knights-on-horseback effect clever enough to prompt an ovation and a “Prioress’ Tale” that’s pretty brilliant about italicizing its vicious anti-Semitism with creepily striking imagery. Not to mention a “Miller’s Tale” that turns into a fart-fest and an intermission joke that effortlessly tops all three of Wodehouse’s.
It makes sense that the RSC’s Canterbury Tales should be less about drama than about passing the time with storytelling in all manner of forms and styles. That was Chaucer’s framework, and while competitive sparring between tellers has been fashioned into a throughline of sorts at the Eisenhower Theater, the two evenings remain essentially episodic. Though there are stories about death and cruelty mixed in with the bawdiness—the tale of a saintly boy who continues singing hymns after his throat is cut, for instance, and the story of sweet Grisilde who tolerates the intolerable—they’re mostly handled in ways that emphasize narrative elegance and stage imagery rather than emotion. I can’t say the evening ever really moved me, except to laughter. Still, directors Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatward, and Jonathan Munby (it took all three to come up with so much stage invention) have been smart about tempering the rowdier goings-on with sweetness. And they do so without ever neglecting the poetry, which Mike Poulton’s new adaptation renders in briskly conversational rhymed couplets that occasionally emphasize archaic rhymes (“two” pronounced so that it matches “woe”) while always sounding comfortably modern.
Because Chaucer left his manuscript in unfinished fragments, his pilgrims never quite made it to Canterbury, but the RSC’s pilgrims do, singing a gorgeous candle-lit hymn, with hallelujahs sent echoing not just through a grand cathedral that materializes around them, not only through one of Wayne Dowdeswell’s lovelier lighting effects but also through time. Bawds and balladeers, clerks and clerics lift gleaming eyes heavenward as drums power their medieval chorus from the 14th century to the 21st, and if you’re not stirred, you’ve simply not been paying attention.CP