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A free spirit soars beyond convention in ART’s ‘The Wife of Willesden’

Novelist Zadie Smith sets a story from Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ in the present-day.

Scott Miller, Marcus Adolphy, Clare Perkins, and the company of "The Wife of Willesden."Marc Brenner

CAMBRIDGE — A woman in a tight red dress stands at center stage, hip cocked, a drink in her hand, and spells out her non-negotiable demand of life: “I want pleasure,’’ stretching out that last word.

Doesn’t seem too much to ask.

But Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her mid-50s, is there to tell us in “The Wife of Willesden” how the world is forever throwing up obstacles to the full expression of the female libido — and how she overcame those obstacles through sheer will and force of personality.

Presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, and directed with verve by Indhu Rubasingham, “The Wife of Willesden” is essentially a feat of storytelling about storytelling.


Novelist Zadie Smith (”White Teeth”) has adroitly adapted Chaucer’s 14th-century “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” from “The Canterbury Tales,” transporting the action from the medieval period to the present day, perhaps to suggest the persistence of misogyny.

Smith took on the challenge of constructing “The Wife of Willesden” in rhyming couplets, and largely succeeded: There’s a vitality to the verse dialogue and scant loss of narrative clarity. She’s replaced Chaucer’s Middle English with present-day vernacular — there’s even a reference to Beyoncé — but it seldom feels glib or forced.

As played by the charismatic Clare Perkins, Alvita is a mixture of exuberance and defiance holding court in a London pub, delivering an ode to sexual freedom while regaling customers and staffers with tales about her five marriages. “You think five’s a lot?,” Alvita says blithely. “I could have had 10.”

From the sidelines, her ex-husbands periodically voice objections to her version of events, but they’re seldom persuasive. In any case, they are not her primary audience: Distinctly individualistic though she is, Alvita is proclaiming solidarity with all womankind and offering advice on how to alter the marital power dynamic in women’s favor.


Her challenge to the social order extends to the Bible; Alvita has her own interpretation of scripture, saying: “I think that God likes variety.” And she rejects the strictures of organized religion, epitomized by the dour Aunty P (Ellen Thomas), Alvita’s churchgoing aunt.

The set by Robert Jones at the Loeb is virtually a character unto itself. Move over, “Cheers.” Seldom has a bar looked more inviting than the stately, almost cathedral-like pub Jones has created, framed by eight large display cases lined with hundreds of liquor bottles.

Illuminating those bottles in shades of blue and purple is just one of numerous atmospheric touches lighting designer Guy Hoare brings to “The Wife of Willesden.” High above the stage is a silver disco ball, ready for the production’s occasional dance breaks to rousing tunes like Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration.”

The best parts of “Willesden” are the Alvita-focused sections, which are drawn from the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” prologue (there’s a wry reference to the fact that Chaucer made the prologue much longer than the tale). Said tale — narrated by Alvita and enacted by the ensemble — is about a soldier (Troy Glasgow) in Jamaica in the early 18th century who faces execution for raping a young woman. (In Chaucer’s original text, he was a knight in Arthurian England.)

The soldier’s crime is the starkest illustration of the male sense of entitlement. But he is promised by Jamaica’s ruler, Queen Nanny (Jessica Murrain) — who believes in “restorative justice, understanding who you hurt and why” — that his life will be spared if he spends a year and a day on a kind of pilgrimage of penitence, traveling the world to discover “what we feel. I mean we women. What we most desire. You tell me that? I won’t set you on fire.”


His wanderings and questioning of countless women end with his marriage to an old woman (Ellen Thomas) and, eventually, a lesson learned.

The tale is in keeping with the overall feminist message of “Willesden” and its emphasis on female sovereignty, but it’s Alvita we most want to hear that message from, especially considering the caliber of Perkins’s performance. She seizes the stage the same way Alvita seizes the power: fearlessly.


Adapted by Zadie Smith from Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from “The Canterbury Tales”

Directed by Indhu Rubasingham

Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through March 17. Tickets start at $30. 617-547-8300, www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeAucoin.