Director Michael Bogdanov, who displays the mannerisms of a very droll, very naughty English boarding-school student, has the cast of The Canterbury Tales clucking like chickens. "Boys and girls," he calls out, "I would like to look at that first cluck chorus, without musical accompaniment." At his command, five actors--including such Guthrie mainstays as Richard S. Iglewski, Jim Lichtscheidl, and Sally Wingert--scratch the floor of this rehearsal room, deep in the bowels of the Guthrie. They bob their heads and twitch their legs, fowl-like, while singing a merry refrain, which can only be transcribed thus: "Byuk byuk byuk byuk byuk byuk byuk byuk byuk byuk byuk buh-KAWK!"
Bogdanov is something of a local legend for his last Guthrie production, The Venetian Twins, which he directed in 1998. Theater professionals either look askance at the production or speak of it fondly, but inevitably all end up telling the same story, detailing a staged sword fight. Bogdanov took the duel off the Guthrie's three-quarter thrust stage and into the audience, where an errant sword plunged into an audience member, who was quickly carted off on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance by white-coated paramedics. The audience member was unharmed, and he returned the next evening, whereupon he was seated in the same seat and was subsequently stabbed again at the exact same moment and whisked away by the exact same paramedics. This continued throughout the run.
Now Bogdanov has Iglewski prancing like a pony. Bogdanov's adaptation of Chaucer's notoriously bawdy epic maintains all of the original poem's coarseness...and then adds more bawdy jokes. The cast is rehearsing "The Reeve's Tale," which is a short dirty joke about a pair of college chums who take revenge on a crooked miller by climbing into bed with the man's wife and daughter. The college lads, played by Lichtscheidl and Matthew Saldivar, are using Iglewski as their pack animal, but there is a problem. Iglewski the horse, insulted earlier by the pair, has been rather mopey, and Bogdanov asks him if he can't play the role a little cheerier. "Do you want happy prancing?" Iglewski asks. "I can do disgruntled. I can play the whole gamut of horse emotions. It's on my résumé."
So Iglewski plays the role with merry prancing, as the college boys march across the rehearsal area, singing a jaunty song, occasionally stopping to spank each other's bottoms vigorously. But Iglewski's chipper stallion is still the source of trouble. Soon the Miller, played by Evan Pappas, will have to excuse himself in a rhymed couplet, during which he claims he is going out to "see a man about a horse." Bogdanov is concerned that this might generate some confusion, and he wants to replace the couplet with another. He turns to playwright Kevin Kling, who has been brought in to write some additional material, and the two confer.
The cast, in the meanwhile, shouts out alternative phrases. "None can match my kind of fellow/Just stepping out to make the snow yellow," one offers.
"Piddle?" Bogdanov asks. "Do you say piddle? We say piddle, too. Point Peter at the porcelain? Do you have that?" Nobody has heard of the latter--or many of his other suggestions. The play is now set in Minnesota, but Bogdanov keeps adding Britishisms to the production. Most often, he will add the word "lads" to a rhymed couplet. The cast will quietly accept this change, and then, equally quietly, let it drop, or change it to something more typically Minnesotan, such as guys or fellows.
Kevin Kling offers a suggestion: "None can match me, brain or brawn/Just going out to water the lawn."
"How about, 'I'm just going out, lads, to water the lawn?'" Bogdanov asks. "Let's try that for a bit."