Even though they're both famous authors, Chaucer and O. Henry aren't mentioned in the same breath very often. But you can experience both in Orange County this month--the former in the ArtsCenter Community Theatre's update of The Canterbury Tales, and the latter in PlayMakers Repertory Company's musical adaptation, An O. Henry Christmas.
The two shows neatly display the strengths and weaknesses of the authors and the companies. The PRC's O. Henry is technically impeccable but sometimes seems much ado about little. The ArtsCenter's Chaucer bustles with life and invention, but not every concept works, and the production doesn't always take full advantage the ones that do. And like many plays adapted from prose fiction (or narrative poetry), neither show quite avoids the off-putting impression that it's a story being told rather than a drama being acted out.
Of course, telling stories is the whole point of The Canterbury Tales, and the ACT manages to cram 10 of Chaucer's narratives into its 90-minute, semi-improvised adaptation. Director Derrick Ivey, co-director Jay O'Berski and their cast of modern-day pilgrims--now a mixed bag of American tourists going to Canterbury by train--use a slightly different style of presentation for each story. Some are simple narratives, while others are accompanied by dialogue, choral responses and elaborate pantomime from the other passengers.
The lighter tales are the more successful. Julie Tomkovick retells the Reeve's Tale of medieval adultery in a flat, unemotional "yah, you betcha" Minnesota dialect that contrasts hilariously with the ensemble's robotic bed-hopping, while David Klionsky turns the self-inflated rooster Chauntecleer in the Nun's Priest's Tale into Elvis, complete with vocals. Other segments would be equally good if they were written a bit more tightly, such as the Second Nun's Tale, which is retold by Thomas Porter (coyly identified in the program as the "Sheltered Youth") in a way that conflates the martyrdom of St. Cecelia with that of Judy Garland. The more serious narratives tend to suffer from being just that--narratives, not scenes--though Solomon Gibson III imparts a stately grace to the Knight's Tale, a straightforward story of chivalry and romance.
There's one narrative that carries a huge emotional charge, however: the Prioress's Tale of the martyrdom of little Hugh of Lincoln, told in this version by a sweet, hymn-singing blind lady, played with perfect vocal and emotional pitch by Jenny Chapman. The mix of artistry and anti-Semitism in Chaucer's original has long stuck like a bone in the throat of English literature, and Ivey and company must have been tempted to skip the story entirely. That they didn't shows courage, and though their handling of the Prioress's Tale doesn't quite work artistically--in fact, it throws the evening seriously off-balance--the ACT deserves credit for facing it in a straightforward and dramatically effective way.
An O. Henry Christmas doesn't display either the inventiveness or the awkwardness of The Canterbury Tales. With its onstage narrators and flowing, almost languid songs by Peter Eckstrom (who also adapted the script), the show has the consistency of a mood piece. Despite the title, that mood isn't particularly Christmasy, at least not in the "ho-ho-ho" sense. O. Henry is sentimental and pleasantly bittersweet rather than jolly and outgoing, dropping a tear and shaking its head over human hopes and human folly.
In fact, only one of its two stories is even about Christmas: "The Gift of the Magi." (It's the one where the young couple can't afford presents, but he has this watch, and she has this long hair ... remember?) It's followed by "The Last Leaf," about a young artist who loses her will to live with the coming of winter and pneumonia. Neither story offers much in the way of character development--or even plot, beyond the basic setup and the patented switcheroo ending--but the marionettes are attractive and energetic, and director Ted Shaffner puts them through their paces with the precision, intelligence and topnotch production values that are PRC trademarks.
Stephanie Lynge brings a frisky, teasing manner and a crystal-clear voice to the wife Della in "Magi" and the plucky sculptor Sue in "Leaf," and Christopher Lynn makes a perfect foil to her as Della's husband Jim. Their mock-operatic duet, "Your Hair Is Gone!" is the high point of the show for both music and comedy. (It was also the only song that didn't vanish from my mind immediately after hearing it; Eckstrom's score has been called "Debussy-like," but I'm not sure that's the best thing to be in a musical.) Lauren Ellis is a pert, pixieish Johnsy in "Leaf"--and has a nice moment as a hatrack in "Magi"--while Ray Dooley plays a drunken neighbor in "Leaf" with his usual effortless-seeming skill.
If they were guided tours, O. Henry would be a smooth, cozy ride past nostalgic scenes of picture-postcard beauty, while Canterbury would be a bouncing trek through spectacular vistas and arid flats on a bus that sometimes breaks down. You can decide for yourself which journey is more appealing, but both are well worth the price of your ticket.