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The Canterbury Tales Remixed

Baba Brinkman's audacious 21st-century update of medieval literature proves a fine showcase for the writer-performer's talents.

Baba Brinkman in
The Canterbury Tales Remixed
(© Ben Hider)
Baba Brinkman brings a semester's worth of medieval literature squarely into the 21st century with The Canterbury Tales - Remixed, at the Soho Playhouse, recasting three of Geoffrey Chaucer's much-studied stories, along with two other great poetic epics, as rap/hip-hop narratives.

It's a conceit that's not only audacious, but also astute (there is a certain correlation between oral storytelling traditions and today's music), and more often than not, the fleet show proves to be a diverting -- and impressive -- showcase for the performer's unique talents.

Brinkman bookends his reimaginings of Chaucer's stories with two other pieces of epic poetry: the show begins with the Middle Eastern tale of the demigod Gilgamesh and ends with the saga of Beowulf. In both instances, Brinkman proves himself to be an excellent contemporary troubadour, vigorously guiding audiences through the tales, and often amusingly incorporates contemporary details. During the first sequence, for instance, he quips "When the gods created Gilgamesh, they gave him a perfect body/Like Arnie when his films were still impressive."

Brinkman later points out that such pop cultural details pervade the originals of the pieces that comprise the show. Moreover, as he also works to demonstrate how his show fits into the continuum of the oral storytelling tradition, he even includes a section in which two scholars from the future might strive to interpret the references to Jennifer Aniston in a Kanye West song.

At the center of the show are revisitations to Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale," "The Merchant's Tale" and "Wife of Bath." In these remixed versions, theatergoers familiar with the originals will find that Brinkman retains the stories' original sense of bawdiness, social commentary, and genuine insight into human nature.

This is particularly true in "The Pardoner's Tale," which, delivered by a "snake-oil salesman," whom Brinkman compares to today's televangelists, centers on the trio of thugs "havin' a stab at a party, three sheets drunk," who set out to beat death. Much like the three Flemish guys in Chaucer, these men meet their ends at the hands of one another because of money that they've found thanks to the Grim Reaper himself.

Brinkman's characterization of this latter character proves to be one of his best. The other standout is the character whom he admits to finding it most difficult to impersonate: the old crone who dupes one of King Arthur's nights into marrying her during the recounting of the "Wife of Bath."

Throughout, Brinkman's percussive poetry -- and smartly crafted prose commentary -- is underscored by original music and turntablism by Mr. Simmonds. There's a distinct beat to all this artist's work and often some clever injections of period-inspired sounds, but the music never overwhelms the performer or his words.

Similarly, the ever-present projections by Erik Pearson -- a mixture of video, stills and animated collages, which sometimes inspire laughs as hearty as Brinkman's wordplay -- supports the performer admirably. And it's a tribute to director Darren Lee Cole's finely calibrated staging that even when the images are at their most striking or humorous (Sumerian masks pasted over what seem to be old black and white Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies for instance), they never upstage this compelling contemporary balladeer.