Chicago Medieval Players

at the Fine Arts Building

Tom Tiler was written anonymously and performed very early in the reign of Elizabeth I–a good 20 years before the flowering of Elizabethan drama brought us, among others, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and, of course, William Shakespeare. It concerns a hapless tiler–one who attaches and repairs roofing tiles–and his marriage to a shrewish woman named Strife. He can’t tame her; she tames him. “I carry the whip,” she announces proudly, loving nothing more than humiliating her poor husband. “Lord that I had some sticks,” she shouts as she beats him. “I would clapper claw thy bones.” To which nebbish Tiler can only whimper between blows, “Good wife I beseech you: I pray you leave me tumbling.”

Tiler exits and runs into Tom Tailor, a man always itching for a good fight. When Tailor hears of Tiler’s domestic trouble, he suggests that he disguise himself as Tiler and give Strife the beating she deserves. Which he does. She begs for mercy: “I pray thee be still, thou shalt have thy will.” “Trouble me never,” he warns her. “I advise thee again. For I will brain thee then.” Strife then retreats to her bed, surprised at how courageous her Tiler has suddenly become.

Tiler, upon learning that Tailor has tamed his wife, quickly returns home. There he finds his wife battered, bruised, and cowering. Touched by her injuries, Tom lets slip that it was not he but Tom Tailor who beat her. Whereupon Strife rises out of bed in a rage and begins beating him furiously. Tom’s beating is fortuitously interrupted by the entrance of the allegorical figure Patience, who strongly suggests that Tom and Strife kiss and make up. Which, for no apparent reason except that the play is almost over, they do.

This amazingly low, mean-spirited, and humorless Elizabethan comedy is proof that remarkably bad comedy is no recent invention. No one rolled in the aisles; in fact, I don’t even remember hearing anyone laugh once during the whole dreary play. No wonder Tom Tiler rates only a single line in The Oxford History of English Literature.

The amateurish acting in this production only accentuates the play’s crudity. The only thing less funny than badly executed slapstick is badly recited comic verse. The Chicago Medieval Players’ production contains plenty of both. Which is a shame, because more gifted comic performers could have squeezed some laughs out of the show.

Only Jack Ramey, in the role of the innkeeper, seemed to know how to speak poetry so that it could be understood; everyone else hurried through their lines at a most unprofessional clip. Only Edward Lasky (as Tom Tailor) knew how to administer a stage slap without making it look obviously staged. James Carson (as Tom Tiler) has a nice singing voice, but his performance as the meek and mild Tiler was far too restrained and inhibited–as was Patricia Newell’s rather physically timid portrayal of Strife.

Dale Muehler’s small renaissance band was significantly more successful, and the many traditional songs it performed–among them the “Wassailing Song” and a version of “Greensleeves”–helped lift the show’s (and the audience’s) sagging spirits.

Aside from the very real historical interest it holds as a bit of pre-Shakespearean drama, this barely disguised Punch-and-Judy show has little to recommend it. In fact, watching the simple but violent story unfold, it’s hard not to yearn for something a little more sophisticated. Like a Three Stooges short. Or your average Honeymooners episode.