Shakespeare's Pericles is a play whose popularity has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. Madly acclaimed by Jacobean audiences, revived during the Restoration, and performed often in the early twentieth century, Pericles is rarely staged today. One reason might be audience conditioning. Audiences expect either tragedy or comedy from Shakespeare and not often both. Pericles is a tragicomedy. Marjorie Garber writes "plays of this kind usually combined, as the name implies, elements of tragedy (serious diction, characters of high birth, and desperate events like shipwrecks and war) and of comedy ("low" characters, bawdy jesting, songs, festivals, and love at first sight) . . ."
Another reason may be the difficulty of following the play. The work comes with a built-in translator and chorus in the form of Gower (Shawn Hamilton). Gower gives lengthy explanations of character and plot, helping the audience track this improbable episodic work. Even the Odyssey didn't need this much assistance.
The Guthrie Lab production of Pericles, adapted and directed by Joel Sass, achieves a rare thing in performances of Shakespearean works. And a rarer thing in a production of Pericles. It might take an obscure fantasy film and Star Wars to explain it.
There is a scene in the mildly underrated film Reign of Fire (set in a future where dragons have scorched the land, as they are want to do). Two caretakers of an isolated outpost settlement are entertaining the children with a bedtime play. The play is a wooden sticks version of the last scene of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back; the children are wide-eyed and fearful as the drama unfolds. The story is familiar to anyone who paid attention during the last couple of decades, but fresh and terrifying to the children in this post-apocalyptic England. So what is so great about it (and by extension this production of Pericles)?
It is unpretentious storytelling, invested in, as Sir Philip Sydney recommends, both delighting and teaching. "An art of imitation . . . to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end, to teach and delight."
The production is full of delights, and Joel Sass takes some risks. Pericles' travel destinations are a strange international soup. The rulers of Tarsas speak with rough Caucasus accents, and the inhabitants of Simonides roll the consonants around in their mouths in an approximation of some Caribbean isle accent. And Sass doesn't shy away from the bawdy. He draws on the talents of some gifted and skilled actors.
Lee Mark Nelson prompts jaw dropping as both Antiochus and Cleon (each actor plays multiple roles with the exception of Hamilton). His transitions are distinct and wonderous; Nelson has a remarkable fluidity and startling stage presence. Ron Menzel turns in a respectable portrayal of Pericles, though he plays the older Pericles with greater acuity than the younger. Bawdiness comes literally in the character of Bawd played at the absolute edge by Teria Birlon. Birlon also takes on the role of Princess Thaisa. Rounding out the cast is Leah Curney (Antiochus' daughter and Marina), Kate Eifrig (Dionyza and Cerimon), Randy Reyes (Thaliard, Leonine, and Lsyimachus) and Steve Lewis (Lord Helicanus and King Simonides).
John Clark Donahue's implicative set is, of course, another member of this superb cast. Both haunting and modest, the set holds each of Pericles' adventures perfectly. There is an elegance to the staging as well; blue banners are flown to simulate water in a manner that suggests a previous era of theater. There is much joy in this production.
The play does slow and nearly stall toward intermission. The plot is a bit of a mess and relies more on individual scenes than a unifying order and sense. Some scenes are stronger than others. There is only so much a director can do with Pericles, but Sass squeezes more than might be believed out of this inconstant play.
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