Chicago Theatre Review
A Rock ’N’ Roll Musical
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – Pearl Post Production
A Chivalric Attempt
This attempt by John C. Ashton to create a rock musical, based upon a late 14th century romantic epic poem, is not as successful as might be hoped. In his desire to update this classic folktale of revenge, the playwright has created a blurred storyline. His characters speak in a poetic, medieval jargon that’s often difficult to understand. He’s accented the long one-act with a wide variety of inexplicable hard rock numbers that intrude, rather than support the story. This premiere production by an admirable new Chicago company, dedicated to making medieval literature accessible to modern audiences, has been made even more confusing by Nich Radcliffe’s direction. While there are some strong performances, the end result is disappointing, accented by a few glimmers of promise.
The saga of Sir Gawain, the youngest knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, and the nephew of Arthur and Guinevere, begins in silence. This seems like a strange choice for a show billed as “a rock ’n’ roll musical.” Gawain wanders onto the stage alone, in a playing space that’s far too large for this production, as staged. He quietly examines a collection of props on the platforms that make up most of the set. It’s never clear exactly what the young man is doing, but soon he’s joined by the royal couple, the Bishop and a handful of knights, all singing “Here We Come a Wassailing.” Again, nothing to prepare the audience for the aural assault that will eventually come. The entourage then sit around and on top of the platforms that form the dining table, and enjoy their holiday repast.
Into the room wanders a tall, glittery, emerald-colored man. Clad only in hunter plaid, and wielding a fancy hatchet, he challenges Arthur to strike him with his axe. Gawain accepts the challenge for his King and beheads the jade giant; then the Green Knight gets up and leaves the castle with his severed head. Before going, he challenges the young knight to meet him in one year at the Green Chapel, where Gawain will receive the same reception. Sir Gawain reluctantly accepts the quest, dons his armor and departs.
Gawain travels far and wide searching for the Green Chapel and his date with destiny. He seeks refuge at the castle of Lord Bertilak for three nights, whereupon he also meets the seductive Lady Grey, the lord’s attractive young wife. The noble invites Gawain to join him on a hunting trip, but the young knight prefers to lounge around the castle instead. Lord Bertilak promises to give Gawain all the game that he brings home in exchange for whatever the young knight gains during his day at the castle. Although Lady Grey does her best to seduce the chaste, young knight, all Gawain will accept from her is a kiss, which he then shares with his host in return for the venison. Each day the same thing occurs, but on the final day Lady Grey gives Gawain an enchanted sash, charmed by her mysterious lady in waiting, that she promises will protect him from harm.
Gawain leaves the castle the following morning and finds his way to the Green Chapel. There the Green Knight accosts him and tells him to bear his neck before the giant’s axe. Upon each of the first two swings, nothing happens; but on the final swing the Green Knight strikes a minor blow, creating only a tiny flesh wound. The Green Knight then laughs and confesses that he’d previously been transformed magically into Lord Bertilak by the Lady’s mysterious lady in waiting, who’s actually Arthur’s arch enemy, Morgan le Fay. He admits that the quest was simply a trick to test the young knight. Gawain returns to Camelot where he tells Arthur and his men all that happened to him and they unanimously pledge to wear green sashes in recognition of Gawain’s adventures.
The story is a classic, with many variations and interpretations. Its themes of temptation, seduction, chastity and the code of chivalry are all here, although often unclear as portrayed in this production. The green symbolism is guardedly prevalent as the color of nature, rejuvenation and fertility. There are many versions of this tale and today it stands primarily as part of the Arthurian legend and simply a tale to entertain.
In John C. Ashton’s theatrical treatment, the story line, because of its familiarity to most theatergoers, will be mostly understood by following action. The Middle English dialogue, however, is another matter. It’s very confusing, to say the least. It’s also often difficult to understand, as spoken by this ensemble of unseasoned actors. Ashton’s continual interruption of the story with incomprehensible rock songs by Foreigner, the Scorpions, Great White and several other artists is frustrating. The songs do little to further the plot or add to the themes or characterizations. Older patrons probably won’t even be familiar with these songs and won’t understand why they’re being used, although the prerecorded tunes are adequately-sung by the cast.
Sam Gribben’s scenic design features a series of shadow boxes, mounted upstage, and often used to simplify the dramatic demands of the scenes. There are some odd-shaped platforms and a series of planks used to connect them. But far too much time is spent having the ensemble construct, rotate and reconfigure these pieces, and usually to little avail. Kate Setzer Kamphausen is known for her fine costumes. She’s been awarded a Jeff for her work, but for this production it’s not entirely clear what she was going for. This might’ve been the limit of her achievement given a tight budget. There’s an obvious attempt at anachronism, with most of the characters clad in jeans, vests and other strange pieces; and kudos for Ms. Kamphausen’s easily-suited armor for Gawain. But several items, such as the piece of plaid flannel that approximates Lord Bertilak’s kilt, just seem cheap and uninspired.
The young, non-Equity cast is a decently talented crew, although many of the actors aren’t given much to challenge them. Chris Causer makes a fine Sir Gawain, gallant and stalwart, as the story demands. When asked to sing some of these rock songs, particularly “Flesh Wound,” he’s clearly out of his range, straining an otherwise pleasant voice. It’s then that the actor loses some of his credibility as a leading man.
Gregory Dodds is very good as Lord Bertilak and one of the highlights of this show. He creates a likable, very macho man’s man, a character with a contagious smile and a certain courageous charisma. This actor can wield a quarterstaff with ease, and his genial scenes with Causer are the highlight of this production.
Recently seen in “Bullets Over Broadway,” Jack Wright is a formidable Green Knight, although he appears a little stiff in his portrayal. One assumes that he was directed to play the character’s coldness and ethereal quality with a pomposity to make him seem other-worldly. It kind of works, but the result is that the Green Knight comes off as two-dimensional.
Caroline Kidwell does well with her songs “Save Me” and “Desert Moon.” Fortunately she’s lithe and flexible as Lady Grey, because Radcliffe has directed the poor actress to assume every position in the Kama Sutra during her seduction scenes. And, this she’s forced to perform in a short, tight, almost see-through dress that’s got to be uncomfortable for the actress.
The biggest problem with this production, besides John C. Ashton’s choppy script, is the direction. First, director Nich Radcliffe is saddled with a space that’s too wide for this story, and he doesn’t use the playing area to its fullest advantage. The play itself might’ve been better had he infused his actors with more energy. With the inclusion of so many annoying hard rock songs, which destroy the flow and add nothing to the story, this piece might’ve been more entertaining if it was played as a comedy. Certainly the anachronistic quality that Radcliffe was trying to achieve would lend itself to satire or some broad humor. As it stands now, this is simply a long, disappointing, but chivalric, first attempt by an admirable new theatre company who deserve a better second chance with their mission.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 1-17 by Pearl Post Productions at the Raven Theatre Complex, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-338-2177 or by going to www.raventheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.