By SAM BROMER
This October, New York’s SoHo Playhouse will feature Far From Canterbury, a new musical with music, lyrics and book by Danny Bernstein ’14, in a series honoring the best of last month’s International Fringe Festival. Directed by Juliana Kleist-Mendez ’12, produced by Dana Lerner ’14, and with choreography by Ilana Gilovich ’12, the musical originally premiered at Cornell last spring. Since then, Bernstein says, the show has evolved for the better: “It’s a bit quicker, the dialogue is cleaned up, [and] there are six new songs.” Indeed, since its premiere at Cornell, the show has matured from a strong college production into a strong new musical, ready for the professional world of theatre.
Far From Canterbury is based loosely on Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” and takes place in a fantastic medieval land where fairy tales function a bit like Fox News: to a large segment of the population, they’re treated as fact, but reality is a bit more complicated. At its heart is an unconventional hero’s journey. One of the kingdom’s greatest songwriters, John of Bath (Luke Hoback), is a young knight whose way with words quickly evaporates when he attempts to speak to women. One day, John finds himself the subject of a tale distributed among the townspeople, which accuses him of kidnapping a helpless princess. He is quickly whisked off to the court of the Queen (Sarah Coffey ’16) for this monstrous crime. As punishment, John is given an ultimatum: Find the “single thing that women most desire,” or else pay the price of death.
Fate has thrown John a curveball, but, with the help of his two best friends, fiercely independent Agnes (Hannah Richter) and ladykiller Marcus (Thomas Jeffrey Wagner), as well as the guidance of a strange, wise old woman named Dolores (Katie Drinkard), John sets out to discover the answer to this seemingly impossible riddle. What follows is a modern take on the perils of coming of age in a world where anyone can be the star of their very own fairy tale — but where you just may end up the villain of your own story.
As should be obvious, you don’t need to have to paid attention in high school English to fall in love with Far From Canterbury. But knowing a little about Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” might just help you follow the storyline. According to the playwright, lyricist and composer; adapting “the Wife of Bath’s Tale” was actually his “favorite part” of creating Far from Canterbury, as doing so lent him a “perfect balance of freedom and limitation.”
On one hand, Bernstein realized that “[t]he story was already in place, as was the structure, as were several key pieces of the plot: the knight, his crime, the riddle, the old woman who gives him the answer and the answer itself.”
However, transforming this arcane text into something that would feel at home on a broadway stage required a heavy dose of creativity. To bolster the story, Bernstein introduced several new characters and added depth to their backstories. A particularly ingenious addition is the play’s “storytellers.” Using rudimentary props designed by Riw Rakkulchon, they act as the play’s scenery, its narrators, and, at many points, its characters. It is a daring narrative device that helps envelop us into a magical world despite the limitations of the space.
One of the central reasons for the success of this “story theater” narrative technique, beyond the consistently strong performances from the ensemble — is the direction of Juliana Kleist-Mendez, a recent graduate of Cornell’s Performing and Media Arts department. For Juliana, incorporating Chaucer’s surprisingly prescient social commentary was essential to her directorial approach. Just as his characters “break down social structures, comment on sexual hierarchies and are extremely bawdy,” under her guise, the musical is full of subtle elements of physical comedy, rooted in the text itself, that accentuate its message of individual empowerment. More generally, she thanks her engagement with theatre at Cornell — including practical experience through Prof. David Feldshuh’s Directing I course and critical engagement in a number of other PMA courses — helped her to achieve the individuality of style and voice necessary to direct a work of theatre.
Bernstein and his cabal of 11 talented Cornellians involved in the production certainly have worked hard for all the accolades that have been thrown at them thus far. As Dana Lerner notes, getting accepted to Fringe was just the beginning of a process that included an industry reading, a $16,000 IndieGoGo campaign, and constant efforts to stay below budget while satisfying the needs of the show’s designers. The payoff for all this effort is, for Dana, the creation of “the beautiful world in which the characters live.”
That world, and the fascinating characters that inhabit it are here to stay, at least for the time being. You can catch Far From Canterbury and other Fringe standouts in the SoHo Playhouse’s Fringe Encore series from Oct. 12 to 18. Tickets are $18.00, and can be found here.