By Bryson David Hoff
Adaptation can be a tricky thing, particularly when drawing from source material that may be several centuries removed from the adaptor’s experience. Cultural norms change, as do audience’s expectations regarding structure and themes, and that’s not even getting into the issues inherent in turning a narrative story into a dramatic one.
Unfortunately, these issues are all too apparent in Pearl Poet Productions’ new rock adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The new jukebox musical is based upon the 14th century chivalric romance of the same name, incorporating songs drawn from the hard rock/glam metal catalogue of the late 1970s and early 1980s. When Knight of the Round Table, Sir Gawain (Chris Causer) accepts a challenge from a mysterious and supernatural warrior (Jack Wright), he finds himself drawn into a contest that is all but certain to result in his death. On his way to meet his destiny, he finds his chivalry tested at the court of Lord Bertilak (Gregory Dodds) by the amorous advances of the lord’s wife (Caroline Kidwell).
At first blush, the music of Foreigner, Scorpions, Great White, and their contemporaries might seem like an match for a story so old that even the name of the original author has been lost to history, but the thematic connection is there. Both the hard rock genre and the Middle-English poem share a concern with how to behave morally when both the outside world and humanity’s baser desires seem to conspire against virtuous conduct. Unfortunately, John C. Ashton’s book does little to turn this affinity into a satisfying basis for a play.
The dialogue is taken almost whole cloth from a very straight translation of the source text and the new material is written in imitation of that same style which, while beautiful in its original form as a narrative poem, becomes very stilted and, even worse, very difficult to follow when transposed directly into dramatic dialogue. The entire piece is begging for a sense of fun and contemporary flavor in the dialogue to give the viewer some way to relate to the world that is being created for them. As a result, the anachronism between the setting and the music lacks the cohesion that makes an audience willing to accept, for example, America’s founding fathers rap battling in Hamilton or 19th century German teenagers crooning pop-punk in Spring Awakening.
It is worth mentioning how little this disjointedness is helped by the use of canned accompaniment tracks. Live musicians are, of course, expensive, especially for a small company, but given how much the hard rock genre relies on the energy of live performance for its appeal, the use of MIDI tracks here only increases the amount of air that is sucked out of the room every time a musical number starts.
This is a particular shame, because the cast assembled is made up of very solid talents. Causer is a charming Gawain with a pleasant pop tenor voice and he and Kidwell have a palpable romantic chemistry on stage, despite the uneven material they have to work with. Special sympathy should be given to Hana Christenson as Morgan le Fey, who oozes charisma, but is given virtually nothing to do with it. That’s becasue her character is so ancillary to the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that an adaptation more willing than this to deviate from its roots would either cut the character or make her role in the melodrama more integral, rather than preserving what was, in the original poem, essentially a cameo to link Sir Gawain to the rest of the Arthurian canon. Instead, the prime emotion evoked by her largely silent femme fatale act, like most performances in this production, is hope that the actor’s next project presents a worthier use of her talents.
The design team offers a couple more pearls to pick out: Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s costumes succeed in blending time periods far more effectively than the production’s script does, and Lana Whittington’s fight choreography brightens and clarifies the scenes that call for it. This is to say that, when applied to a tighter script, there’s no reason this same team of artists couldn’t put together an exciting evening of theatre.
That sense of missed opportunity pretty effectively sums up the whole of Pearl Poet Production’s inaugural production. The company’s mission statement says that the company is “dedicated to making important works of medieval literature more accessible to modern audiences.” Unfortunately, in its current form, dogmatic adherence to the text and an incomplete vision of how to integrate modern sensibilities make Sir Gawain and the Green Knight clunky and unsatisfying both as an adaptation and, more importantly, as a play in its own right.
With an approach that embraces anachronism instead of holding it at arm’s length and aims for reinvigorating instead of just reiterating the poem, there’s no reason this couldn’t work, idiosyncratic soundtrack and all. As it stands, though, there’s simply not enough here to recommend it over picking up Marie Borroff’s seminal translation of the original from your nearest bookseller and spending an evening reading that with whatever background music suits your fancy.
Pearl Poet Productions presents “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” through December 17 at the Raven Theatre, 6157 North Clark Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.