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Beyond Categories

Stephen Peithman • The Play's the Thing • March 1, 2007

Plays in a variety of types and styles

While we usually group newly published plays by type or subject matter, this month’s selection features a varied assortment, several of which defy categorization. A good example of the latter is The Rap Canterbury Tales, a one-man show by Baba Brinkman that includes several tales and some of the prologue from Chaucer’s 14th century masterpiece, retold in rap style.

Chaucer’s lively original centers on a group of religious pilgrims en route to Canterbury, England. They come from all levels of society and tell stories to one another to kill time on their long journey. Brinkman re-sets the concept as a competition among rappers on a tour bus, on which he, as narrator, has stowed away. The stories include the sensual “Miller’s Tale” and the proto-feminist “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” as well as the darkly ironic “Pardoner’s Tale.” The play was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival, and Brinkman has since worked with students in the London and Cambridge school systems to rekindle an interest in the work of Chaucer and performance poetry. If you’re still skeptical, have a read — you may be pleasantly surprised. [ISBN 0-88922-548-6 $24.95, Talonbooks]

Also with a nod to a classic model, James Sherman’s Affluenza! borrows characters from Restoration comedy (the cuckolded husband, the coquette, the clever servant, the fop) to create a contemporary comedy of manners — and in rhymed couplets, no less. The plot revolves around Bill Moore, a Chicago real estate magnate. He has rediscovered love with Dawn, a woman who is half his age. However, Bill’s parasitic son Jerome, nephew Eugene and exwife Ruth are all convinced that Dawn’s a golddigger, pure and simple. Affluenza! may not tax the mind, but it makes for a very funny evening. Four males, two females. [Samuel French]

Protecting one’s stake is also central to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. From the start, Julius Caesar established himself as a man whose unique drive, self-confidence and detachment would bring him into continual conflict with established institutions. Shakespeare’s tragedy is set at a crucial turning point in Roman history, as the Republic gives way to the Empire. Yet it’s also clear that — safely removed in time and place from the politics of Elizabethan England — Rome makes the perfect laboratory for Shakespeare’s free-ranging political analysis. This we learn in the newly published Yale Annotated William Shakespeare, whose new performing edition of the play is fully annotated by Burton Raffel, with an informative essay by Harold Bloom. [ISBN 0-300-10809-5, $6.95, Yale University Press]

On a very different level is Hogwash, by Barbara Pease Weber, which tells the story of the strained relationship between the elderly Louie Baxter and her daughter, Mary. Louie is an incorrigible troublemaker who is expelled from the Sunny Hill Day Care Center for smoking in the bathroom and setting off false fire alarms. With her husband out of town and no alternative housing available, Mary takes Louie to work. Called out of her office for an emergency meeting, Mary returns to find that the office building has caught on fire and Louie has disappeared. All’s well that end’s well, however. Not only does Louie save Mary’s job as an advertising and marketing executive, she also manages to snag a boyfriend, star in a TV commercial and win an all-expense paid vacation to Puerto Rico. Weber provides a lot of laughs, but also manages some sensitivity for the underlying problem of a woman trying to provide care for her aging mother. Four females, three males. [Baker’s Plays]

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