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Rock and Roll “Sir Gawain” Doesn’t Pass the Test

At the start of Pearl Poet Productions’ Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, now playing at the Raven Theatre Complex, Sir Gawain (played by Chris Causer) walks onto a darkened stage. He moves from place to place on it as lights come up around him. He examines some props very pensively. Finally, after standing high on a platform for a moment and staring out, he sits and reflects, still pensively. All of this occurs in silence that is only broken when King Arthur and Queen Guenevere, sneaking up behind him, start singing “The Wassail Song” (which Gawain joins as if nothing previous had happened).

What is going on? Damned if I know. My strong suspicion is that Causer also has no clue: it is the first of many bizarre directorial decisions by Nich Radcliffe or authorial touches by John C. Ashton that doom a fine cast to labor in a confusing mess of a show. Causer is doing his very best here, as are all of the actors. He comes across as very sincere in his role as Gawain the Good, the courtly knight who volunteers to take Arthur’s place to meet the challenge of the Green Knight: to give him one blow with an ax the giant appears to have stolen from the next-door set of E.D.G.E. Theatre’s A Klingon Christmas Carol, and then, a year later, take an equal one from him. When Gawain lops off the Knight’s head (a fact I only know because I have read the story, as it is not at all made clear in the play), it stays alive magically, forcing him to have to commit to his own end of the bargain. The play follows him on his adventure the next year as he seeks out what he believes will be his own death.

The first thing he must do, as is logical, is to say goodbye. The script calls for the use of the song “Big Goodbye” by Great White. Like several of Ashton’s song choice decisions, this appears motivated by the superficiality of the song’s title rather than anything else. Consider these lyrics: “I guess you were just tryin’ / To keep a love alive / But baby all your lyin’/ Just took it for a ride.” Now consider also that the script has this song sung by Gawain and Queen Guenevere. And Radcliffe’s staging does Ashton no favors: he treats it as if they are a couple of lovers angrily realizing that their time together is over. Gawain even picks up his aunt and Queen at one point in the blocking, which is outrageous by any standards, let alone the code of chivalry. Causer and Lily Cox, who plays the Queen, have excellent rock voices, but this staging and this song make it seem that their characters are having an affair. Forget Lancelot, Arthur; worry about Gawain.

Many of the songs are not illogical but simply intrusive. One of the worst offenders occurs as Gawain is being tested in the castle of Lord Bertilak, where he is taken in as he prepares to face the Green Knight. Each morning, Bertilak goes off to hunt and leaves Gawain (the Chaste, if you don’t include his maybe-affair with his aunt) alone with his wife, Lady Grey (a completely game Caroline Kidwell, throwing herself into seduction songs with all of her ability and charm). Each morning she tempts him. Each morning there is a song. It is a sequence that goes on forever because all three mornings play out the same way. At least one of the songs needs to go, and I would recommend the very weak “Save Me” by the DiVinyls: “When I’m looking back upon my secrets I have held so long / I think it’s about time to share my booty with the one who’ll dare / Save me, save me today.” Seriously? The second sequence’s “Don’t Believe Her” and the third’s “Desert Moon” work infinitely better.

One song that fits like a dream is the one that is sung while Gawain is (in super slow-motion) getting ready to strike the Green Knight and then again, later, as the opposite is about to occur: “The Rhythm of Your Love” by Glass Tiger: “Listen for the sound of your / Heart beneath your skin / You’re standing tall / It’s the end but that’s / Where I begin…The rhythm of your love will make you bleed.” Both its pounding beat and its lyrics line up perfectly to make the scene even more intense than it otherwise might be.

A quite different effect occurs with another song that ought to have been a good choice: “Flesh Wound” by Foreigner, sung by Gawain after his trial is over and he returns with nothing but an, um, flesh wound and some deeply divided emotions about the whole affair. The lyrics are perfect: “It’s just a flesh wound / Missin’ my heart but it still cuts deep / Nothin’ but a flesh wound / It tore me apart and I still can’t sleep / You know you really did it well / Now I’m lyin’ on a bed of nails / But it’s nothin’ but a flesh wound.” Unfortunately, Ashton’s brilliant brainstorm on the song didn’t extend to the scene around it: he has Gawain happily regaling his fellow knights with tales of his adventures seconds before collapsing into this angst-ridden number. And Radcliffe’s direction makes it worse, having Gawain running all over the too-wide set, constructing what is basically a very awkwardly set up trust fall into the arms of his fellow knights, even having the rest of the cast freeze in place so Gawain can vent his emotions…um, what?…while no time is passing?…is that it? None of it makes sense, but it’s pretty typical of the decisions made in this play, in which multiple set transitions occur that consist merely of changing the direction of planks between boxes: these changes are executed well, but honestly, what is the point?

That is, unfortunately, a question I found myself asking quite a lot during the evening.

Consider: the play makes liberal use of shadow boxes, with lights designed by Cassandra Bierman. When they work, as in the arrival of the Green Knight near the end (Jack Wright, under plenty of green sparkling makeup, who manages to be both a bit menacing and very genial) or the tempting figure of femme fatale Morgan La Fay (Hana Christenson, very underused) haunting Gawain, they can be impressive. But then there are times such as the repeated staged “hunting” sequences when Lord Bertilak (Gregory Dodds, a strong presence who helps the last third of the play move along and, with Causer, engages in a great bout with quarterstaffs choreographed by Lana Whittington) goes out in the morning: the shadow shows Bertilak posing in the center and four other actors are frozen in twisted positions on the two sides. And again I ask: what is going on? Even a potentially nice bit like the killing of a giant troll fails to play because Radcliffe has Causer behind the screen for the start and in front for the finish, destroying all consistency and any possibility of creating an illusion that the troll is as huge as its voice (good work here by sound designer Michael Maxwell) would suggest.

One fine moment comes from North Homeward. (Full disclosure: he’s my son.) Playing Bertilak’s porter, he sings Steve Winwood’s plaintive “Wake Me Up on Judgement Day,” accompanying himself on ukelele, while Gawain stuffs himself at a banquet (oddly made of ribbons; don’t ask). Another comes from Kellen Robinson, playing another servant of the Bertilak castle, as she tries to get the traveling knight to change his mind and not go to face what must be his doom. Noah Berman is in excellent voice all night as King Arthur, and along with Cox presides over a solid Camelot court consisting of Sir Aggravain (of the Hard Hands), played by Kamron Palmer, Sir Ywain, played by Graham Todd, and Bishop Baldwin, played by Tim Yong. Berman and his knights have some fun near the start before the Green Knight’s appearance, sparring with Gawain’s squire (Robinson again) and joking with one another. It’s unfortunate that all of these good performers are not in a better play.

Costuming, too, is from Bizarro World. Though the King and Queen wear traditional robes, they also wear jeans. In fact, just about everyone wears jeans. Knights are only distinguished by the vests—vests!—they wear. The Bishop, also wearing a vest, isn’t distinguished from them at all. The Green Knight’s costume is wonderful, but the first time that Morgan La Fay appears she seems to be wearing a burqa. And Lady Grey’s costumes are all pretty modern in style. It’s as if Radcliffe just told his costume designer: be as bizarrely anachronistic as possible. And for all I know he may well have done so. It would be completely consistent with his other decisions here.

But perhaps his greatest sin is the decision not to permit the cast from going for an ounce of comedy in a show that, since its very premise makes it anachronistic, is rife for comic mining. I mean, come on: he even refused to grab the low-hanging fruit. When the Green Knight appears, he complains that he needs to fight Arthur himself because the rest of the Round Table is nothing but “beardless children.” This when Sir Aggravain sports a six-inch beard for all to see!

Do yourself a huge favor: find out what the talented members of this cast will be in next and see them in that. Make it a point. They are owed the audience after wallowing in this mess for the last month or so. And you’ll enjoy that a lot more than coming to see Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But if you have to come to the Raven Theatre Complex this month, I’d suggest seeing A Klingon Christmas Carol. I haven’t seen it, but the folks in that theatre sounded like they were having a lot of fun.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is now playing at Raven Theatre (presented by Pearl Poet Productions), 6157 N. Clark, Chicago, until December 17. Performances time vary. Tickets are $25 and are available from Pearl Poet ProductionsFind more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

 Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member

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