Canterbury Tales

If you've been pining for a really well-written contemporary script and you've yet to encounter Moira Buffini's Silence, do yourself a favor and catch the Roundtable Ensemble's production—performed in rep with The Mammy Project and The Taming of the Shrew—at the American Theater of Actors's Chernuchin Theater. In this case, "contemporary script" means there's a medieval England setting, replete with the threat of Viking raids, a clash of pagan and Catholic ideals, a journey by cart, and a character based on a strong royal woman who lived in England prior to Queen Elizabeth. (That's right, there were royal women of note in Europe before Elizabeth.)

But don't be scared off by the remote setting. First of all, without a modern context—which this production punctuates in transitions featuring rock music by composer Jonathan Sanborn—for comparison, the dialogue wouldn't make much sense. "One day, maybe not for a hundred years, maybe not for two, all women will be driving loaded carts up hills. That's my dream," says one of the play's protagonists, Ymma of Normandy.

Ymma (Kelly Hutchinson), the daughter of a saint and a woman of fiery, if righteous, rage, is sent by her brother to England to be punished for an unnamed crime, at the discretion of King Ethelrod (Joe Plummer). To her fury, Ethelrod marries her off to a 14-year-old Viking king, Lord Silence of Cumbria (Makela Spielman). But the marriage has, in more than one way, surprising results. The two become fast friends, and Ymma embraces her future in Cumbria, bound to Silence.

Meanwhile, the once wavering and effete Ethelrod becomes convinced by a dream that he should have married Ymma himself. He then pursues the traveling party—Ymma; her long-suffering lady in waiting, Agnes (Helen Coxe); Silence; Roger, a priest (Greg Hildreth); and Ethelrod's warrior servant, Eadrik (Chris Kipiniak)—to Cumbria.

It's surely no accident on Buffini's part that for much of the play the characters embark on a journey away from Canterbury toward a pagan land, a reversal of the pilgrims' travels in The Canterbury Tales. Along the way, love triangles abound, and the play covers a broad spectrum of topics, some of which are emblematic of a world on the brink of change: ruthless ambition, rape, violence, and gender definitions. The players move through the story in the aptly gymnasium-like Chernuchin Theater, which is marked by several precise scrims lit with green light and patterned with forest branches, and also makes use of a broad balcony.

The text is bookmarked by narrative soliloquies that let the audience easily navigate the plot. If you normally have trouble following the sensibilities of modern epic writers, this production may be a way of enjoying a text with such sprawling subject matter. While taking on rather serious topics, Buffini ably rolls out the one-liners, and director Suzanne Agins gets comedic timing from the cast in even the most unexpected places. As the priest, Hildreth earns a laugh just from introducing himself.

Agins also gets a well-executed and energetic performance out of her players. Chris Kipiniak as the reticent giant Eadrik gives the impression that he is either a dumb brute or the very definition of "still waters run deep." But Hutchinson, although regal enough as Ymma, dashes through her lines; Agins would have done well to slow her down. Perhaps because of the text, the production is not nearly as satisfying once the journey winds down and the travelers reach Cumbria. There's not too much to be learned about these characters after the play's halfway point.

As the travelers come upon a wide and open meadow, the priest cowers at the uncharted territory—and, no doubt, at an uncertain future. Agnes urges him to focus on the meadow's details instead of becoming overwhelmed by its vastness. As they cover a wide range of topics, fleshing out the particulars, both the script and this production follow her good advice.

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