Chicago Medieval Players

at the Fine Arts Building

If some things never change, maybe it’s because we like them the way they are. It hardly matters that Johan! Johan! is almost half a millennium old–the libidinal urges it celebrates are timeless. The heroine, Tib, a bored and randy London housewife, is as ancient as any archetype and as contemporary as Mrs. Robinson. This comedy will never date.

In Johan! Johan! the object of Tib’s lust is the local parish priest, to whose vicarage she pays afternoon visits for horizontal absolution. Tib’s cuckold husband and the carnal cleric are both named Johan (the priest, because of his learning, gets a “Sir” before his name). You’d think that that coincidence would yield Chaucerian complications, but the play contains few twists–the characters’ situation and confrontations are enough.

The program notes tell us that the reason so many medieval plays depicted domestic strife was the difficulty of divorce; all too often marriage was an exercise in frustration that led to violence, usually against the wife–but it could be the other way around. The overbearing husband in Johan! Johan! smugly and stupidly assumes that he alone can satisfy Tib; his arrogance sets up his wife’s mistreatment of him.

The script, possibly an adaptation of the French Farce du Paste, was probably written by John Heywood, a dramatist who served both the Tudor court and the circle of Sir Thomas More. As the French title implies, a key prop here is a sumptuous pie: it’s eaten by the wife and her lover while the ridiculous husband is consigned to repairing a wooden pail with candle wax. (When these two devour the pie, it’s every bit as suggestive as the salacious repast in Tom Jones.)

When Johan objects to their eating the pie without him, the sinful duo try to make him believe he did eat the pie; then, after a rambunctious chase, they merrily abandon him. Pretending that he chased them out, the pathetic husband brazens out victory in the midst of massive domestic defeat.

It’s interesting how the play’s irreverent treatment of this self-serving prelate reveals an England ripe for Reformation; Sir Johan’s predations will soon fall victim to the canting Puritans. It’s also intriguing to see Shakespeare, 19th-century realism, and the sitcom anticipated in this silly romp, which offers an Archie Bunker-like husband whose pride presages his fall, a capricious wife as ingenious as any in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and a Balzacian priest who knows how to create his own homegrown miracles–unexpected children from other men’s wives. (With the flair of a character from the Decameron, Sir Johan has the effrontery to tell the suspicious husband that he laid his wife in order to test her continence. This claim was not unusual; the history of the Catholic church reeks with the scandals caused by priests who knew the concept of chastity no better than they did Latin.)

Ann Faulkner’s spicy revival for the Chicago Medieval Players is purportedly set in a candlelit tavern, as the original production would have been. As was the custom in the 16th century, the stage manager (a chipper Claudia Hommel) serves the audience homemade ale, cider, and cookies; she also acts as prompter, holding a big book, and at this performance accompanied the actors on the recorder.

Johan! Johan!’s hour includes six more or less ribald songs, well prepared by Faulkner. In one, a frustrated Johan repeatedly wails “Tie, tie the mare”; later he croons “What remedy?” to the tune of “Greensleeves.” The show ends with the delicious four-part ballad “Pastime With Good Company.” Attributed to King Henry VIII, it points the farce’s carpe diem lesson: “Every man hath his free will”–and every woman, too.

Faulkner’s new staging does this old play ample justice, making it as broad and hearty as it must have been in 1533. Fred Zimmerman plays the gluttonous, wife-beating hubbie with an eye-popping bluster worthy of Jackie Gleason, whether he’s imploring the audience’s sympathy, juggling rolls, or attacking the pail with a rage he’d rather lavish on Tib. Palmar Hardy’s caterwauling Tib is as wily, saucy, and resourceful as the shrewish character calls for.

Charley Sherman, an English native new to Chicago, makes a promising debut; with his seductive voice and sly smile, Sherman’s Sir Johan is a handsome, supple hypocrite whose cozenage of horny housewives is altogether believable.