A divine exploration: The Canterbury Tarot at Aside Theatre

Show poster by Jesse Peper (full version below)

By Jenna Duncan

Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before:

The Queen of All the Lands comes roller-skating into the bar by the physical propulsion of her man-slave. She’s greeted by Judgment, The Fool, Death, the Wheel of Fortune, the Dancer of Life (known as the Star), the World, and the Tower.

But hold up — this is not your every-day bar scene, replete with hipsters, a jukebox loaded with great old New Wave records, and frosty cans of White Claw spiked seltzer behind the bar.

This is a special place; a place of respite for lonely travelers — those weary pilgrims who are just biding the night away before they get to Canterbury to beg, or pray, their way into salvation.

The Canterbury Tarot is a mishmash of around eight tales, loosely inspired by Canterbury Tales and also themed around some of the major arcana, or houses of the tarot deck. As travelers venture in and out of this edge-of-town watering hole, the rule of the house is that each visitor must share a story.

Many of the stories are grim, displaying some of the worst features of humanity: greed, vice, idiocy, even murder. But, while these are not morality tales, there’s a bright side to life displayed, as well — a refreshing reminder that on the other side of darkness, there is often light.

The play is set in the annals of Aside Theatre, a small-ish off-shoot dramaturgy project, connected to and supported by Urban Beans coffee shop on Osborn and 7th Street, which shares a parking lot. And if you get the sense that local theater often has a scrappy, fly-by-the-seat of your pants feel to it, well … you wouldn’t be wrong.

“We actually kind of prefer these tight timeframes,” Naftule says.

The Aside Theatre Company is a theatrical collaboration with Urban Beans, that seems to be seeking fresh, new, local and experimental format plays. The theater itself is small and somewhat bare-bones with high, open-beam ceilings, folding chairs, and folding tables for ticket entry. They started out near Fifth Street, off of Roosevelt Row, branching out of Conspire. Aside Theatre was able to take some of the shows that were displaced a couple of years ago when the Firehouse was forced to close.

The Canterbury Tarot is showing as a double-feature with Cask & Crypt, written by Ben Gill, a play about two Goths who relocate to L.A. to support their sin-eating/undertaking business. They meet the exotic widow of the King of Morovia, and her beautiful Goth sister, the heiress. In trying to fulfill their hired funerary duties, they fall into a homicidal plot that involves a thug named Paco and have to “dig” their way out of certain death by accosting an accusatory corpse and wooing the fancy princess.

A challenge to running as a double-feature is moving and restaging the set between plays can be a lot of work, logistically, the playwright and director say. There are elements that need to be quickly swapped out.

However, one big stage item and set-piece can stay on stage the whole time— a coffin.

Cask & Crypt, obviously, require a coffin for the funeral parlor business they undertake. For The Canterbury Tarot, the coffin is from whence the character Death emerges at the top of the show, but it also serves as a boat at a certain point in the play, shepherding some Jersey girls across the River Lethe.

Another funny attribute of the space is that it has a disruptively loud air conditioner, Naftule and Moncada report. However, during a Sunday matinee staging, the A.C. was not audible and presented no distraction. Actors warming up for Tarot during the first play, however, were quite noisy behind the curtain.

The Canterbury Tarot was something Naftule was working on, in pieces, for years, he says. Back in February, Aside Theatre held a pitch event, and he presented the completed play to artistic directors, Nathaniel Burns and Ilana Lydia, who gave it the green light.

The action takes place in a pub on the edge of civilization, run by Wheel (also called Wheel of Fortune), who serves as a sort of innkeeper, and also the steadfast constant of the group. In many understandings of different tarot decks, the Wheel character is constant. She represents life, or time — never-changing and always in motion.

Naftule and Moncada have an interesting symbiosis as writer and director. Both seem patient with each other and seem to share a vision for most of the aesthetic and action of the play.

While Naftule says he was inspired by characters he knows from his Rider-Waite tarot deck, Moncada fond his fascination with the cards through the Marseille deck, the family of tarot cards recognized as possibly being the oldest in existence.

Moncada says his interest was piqued when he discovered film director and writer Alejandro Jodorowsky shares a deep interest in the Marseille deck and is even rumored to have discovered that if arranged in a certain order, all 78 cards of the Marseille deck can form a certain kind of mandala image. “It’s the oldest deck, right now, that they still have the original plates,” Moncada says. Moncada says his own personal aesthetic for the play’s staging, basing the attitude of many characters around primary colors. “It almost looks apocalyptic when you see everyone on-stage, fashion-wise,” says Moncada. Naftule says you could see a sense of the Jodorowsky inspiration.

Moncada’s former dramatic performance group was called The Arcana Collective. Naftule explains that through working with Moncada and others interested in tarot card reading, this play was in the back of his head for about five years since the idea. “What if we did Canterbury Tales, but with tarot cards? That was in the back of my head,” Naftule says. “But I couldn’t figure out how, structurally, it would work.”

“Last year, I saw this play at Stray Cat, Annie Baker’s The Antipodies,” Naftule says. “With the structure, the play was basically 10 characters, and they were on stage the entire play.” He decided to take the idea of the pilgrims spending one night in a tavern together, sharing their stories. While some of the “Cards” step off-stage for minor costumer changes to become the players of their colleagues’ stories (plays within the play), the eight players are mostly all interacting with one another, most of the time.

The Fool provides some giddiness and a certain refreshing element of slapstick comedy. Played somewhat similarly to the Harley Quinn character from Batman, but with a more androgynous twist, Indy Prince delights with a quick wit and light-speed paced lines.

Alejandro Sanchez Vega, who plays Death, actually has a tragic ending scene (“You killed Death!”), only to be revived and return in different forms as a suitor and as The World. And perhaps the most mysterious character, Tower, actually looks like he was there on-site at 9/11, with little falling people pinned to his utility vest. He is the most anxious and reluctant to tell his story — as the layers of the play gradually build, his tower is stacked for the greatest tragedy, at the end.

Within the play, and the deck, it’s all there —lovers, cheaters, fools, geniuses, warriors, princesses, humble pub keepers, dancers, the common men, women, and others.

Cask & Crypt and The Canterbury Tarot run as a double-feature Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through October 20 at Aside Theatre, 3508 North 7th Street, Phoenix. Tickets are $20 per person. For more information, visit asidetheatre.com.

By Jesse Peper