By Philip Pearce
PACIFIC REP’S new rendition of Pericles is a warm-hearted rambunctious delight.
Which is odd, considering the shortcomings of the script. If you stage Pericles, Prince of Tyre with Elizabethan reverence you’ll come up with a baffling, disjointed bore of a show. The hero, for no very convincing reason, spends most of the play ignoring the politics of his native city while he sails here and there, having one brief melodramatic adventure after another with a succession of Mediterranean big wigs. These sequences lack any significant dramatic link; they’re just What Happens Next.
That includes events which the playwright repeats, much more successfully, in other plays. There’s an aristocratic girl forced to accept a husband from a lottery of applicants as in The Merchant of Venice. There are a long-lost baby daughter and a dead wife who resurrects in Act V, but less effectively than in The Winter’s Tale.
A lot of the first half of the play is written in such a clunky style that Shakespeare scholars suspect he jotted down some scene outlines and outsourced them to be filled in with dialogue and action by an available hack named (I’m not kidding) George Wilkins.
Emerging from the Circle Theatre after Saturday’s opening, I asked myself how PacRep has managed to transform this clutter of discouraging script problems into such a consistently entertaining show.
Well, for starters, director Kenneth Kelleher has assembled a cast of nine actors, each capable of portraying five or six eccentric characters at the flick of a lighting cue as well as singing, dancing and, in most cases, playing a musical instrument or two.
Kelleher and this tireless ensemble refuse to disguise the fact that most of the first half of Pericles is claptrap. They emphasize it, on the grounds that anything you do with it will probably be an improvement. All the Mediterranean melodrama gets sent up—way up over the top. When nasty King Antiochus (Justin Gordon) is described as having an incestuous relationship with his daughter (Lindsey Schmeltzer) there is no doubt what is going on between the guilty pair behind D Scott McQuiston’s iambic narration. Simonides (Mike Baker) conducts his daughter’s marriage lottery like a TV host introducing nightclub acts. When Pericles (Matthew Reich or Justin Gordon) falls head over heels for the Greek Princess Thaisa (Jennifer Le Blanc) the lovers sail blissfully above the stage on overhanging lamps like wads of change in an old-fashioned department store. The birth of their daughter Marina (also Lindsey Schmeltzer) is a noisy on stage obstetric event. The action just roars and scampers along in loud, visually specific comic strip episodes.
Kelleher and the cast accompany all the frantic action with explosions of rock or country western music which comment, usually satirically, on what’s happening at that point in the story.
It’s in the second half of the play that Shakespeare’s text begins to take on some coherence and a bit of authentic emotion. Our hero’s beloved wife dies (apparently) in childbirth. He then chooses, with a singular lack of wisdom, to entrust their surviving infant daughter Marina (an earlier experimental sketch of Miranda in The Tempest?) to the tender care of a couple named Cleon and Dionyza (Ben Muller and River Navalle) who promptly hand the baby on to a hired killer named Leonine (Matthew Reich), whose efforts to murder the child are thwarted when a passing crew of pirates (Justin Gordon, Patrick Andrew Jones and Ben Muller) snatch her from his arms. Marina grows older and wiser but her perils continue apace. They include capture by the staff of a failing brothel run by McQuiston and Jennifer Le Blanc. Here Marina avoids being ravished when she shames her first and only customer into a return to virtuous life and attitude.
Everything by now is clearer if not much more believable and, with the mounting tension of Pericles’ loss of a wife and desperate search for a missing daughter, Kelleher and the cast adopt a more sincere and nuanced approach that works nicely. I particularly liked the unexpected pathos of the company joining in a wistful tribute to Pericles by singing the American folk song “I’m Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger.”
The show has that kind of unexpected and exciting shifting of moods. Pericles is a tribute to the magic theatrical talent and imagination can perform on a work that, let’s face it, probably wouldn’t have survived the first half of the seventeenth century if its author hadn’t also written some of the supreme comedies, tragedies and romances of world history.
Pericles continues through September 22.