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Theatre in Review: Pericles (Theatre for a New Audience)

Raphael Nash Thompson. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Only the bravest theatre artists tackle Pericles, which is, arguably, the most problematic of Shakespeare's plays, unless you count The Two Noble Kinsmen, which many do not. It has a plot so wild and wandering, so full of out-of-left-field developments, that it makes such rambling yarns as Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale seem like cogent examples of dramatic construction. It also lacks the powerful character insights and lyrical flights that frequently redeem Shakespeare's weaker plays. It is, in short, a potboiler, a rambling tale of rising and falling fortunes, loaded with sexual scandals, shipwrecks, pirates, separations, reunions, and a heroine so virtuous that even when kidnapped into a bordello the customers start taking vows of chastity.

Fortunately, Trevor Nunn is a very brave man, one who knows just about everything about staging Shakespeare, and he reasons, quite correctly, that if Pericles isn't a fully realized drama, it is a hell of an adventure story with a powerful subtheme of restoration and forgiveness. Having assembled a highly skilled company and some imaginative designers, he takes the script at face value, an absorbing and twisty narrative that builds to a genuinely moving climax.

It is especially important to create a plausible universe for this ever-churning narrative, and on this point, Nunn's production is notably successful. Robert Jones' set design, which places the audience on three sides, combines a thrust deck with an upstage wall that contains an enormous disk -- which can open to reveal arid landscapes, roiling seas, and, in the climax, the temple of Diana. There are occasional scenic touches -- for example, the array of oriental lamps that fly in when the action shifts to that brothel -- but, by and large, it falls to Stephen Strawbridge's lighting to set the mood and reshape the space, which it does, fluently. In a play that often seems like a guided tour of the ancient world, the costume designer, Constance Hoffman, combines a variety of fabrics and colors to create distinct styles for the citizens of Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Ephesus, and elsewhere. Quite possibly her most stunning creation is the gown worn by the daughter of King Antiochus, which appears to be a kind of diaphanous golden cocoon. (I regret the simple shift that Pericles sports for much of the play's first half -- he looks like he is wandering the world in his nightshirt -- but, otherwise, Hoffman's designs are highly original creations that help us keep track of where we are in the convoluted narrative. Daniel Kluger's sound design includes some impressive thunderstorms, especially when it is time for another shipwreck.

Nunn has added some clarifying passages taken from The Painful Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, written in 1608 by George Wilkins, who may or may not have worked on the play with Shakespeare, and he has set passages to music by Shaun Davey, strategies that result in a much more comprehensible work. (The only other time I've seen Pericles, I could barely follow it.) He has also found a commanding and well-spoken Pericles in Christian Camargo, who creates an intrepid hero whose heart and mind are refined by the repeated experience of tragedy. He brings an almost incantatory power to the final scenes, when he is reunited with the wife and daughter he lost so many years before.

The production is filled with incisively conceived and lucid portrayals. Philip Casnoff brings an all-important gravity to the role of Helicanus, who takes over the throne of Tyre in Pericles' absence. Patrice Johnson Chevannes cuts a fine figure of corruption as the bawd who tries to make a courtesan out of Pericles' daughter, Marina. Nina Hellman is properly duplicitous as Dionyza, wife of the governor of Tarsus, who, out of jealousy, puts Pericles' daughter in harm's way. Ian Lassiter puts his powerful stage presence to good use as one of Marina's would-be customers, who becomes her most ardent suitor; John Rothman is slyly amusing as Simonides, king of Pentapolis, who brings his fetching daughter, Thaisa, to Pericles' attention; Will Swenson displays his skill with classical drama as Cleon, governor of Tarsus, who must face the fact of his wife's crimes; and Raphael Nash Thompson is lively and compelling as Gower, the storyteller, who takes us through the narrative's tortuous developments. There are two weakish performances, which cause serious problems: Gia Crovatin offers disappointingly flat line readings as Thaisa, although this becomes a something of a positive when Thaisa becomes a devotee of the goddess Diana, making oracular pronouncements in her temple. Much more problematic is the Marina of Lilly Englert: she's an attractive and winning presence, but her breathy, sibilant line readings render most of her dialogue incomprehensible; if she wants to continue appearing in classical roles, she needs to seriously consider signing up for some vocal work. (Many smaller roles are taken by the members of the PigPen Theatre Company, who also serve as onstage musicians. It's another case of Theatre for a New Audience working with the members of a rising theatre company.)

Otherwise, Nunn elucidates the story with one cleanly rendered stage picture after another, commenting on nothing, working only to clarify the narrative and make sure that we grasp at all times where each character fits in the elaborate dramatic pattern worked out by Shakespeare. He also confidently guides the action through the pileup of coincidences that bring everyone together, replacing separation and tragedy with hope and unity. Productions of Pericles are rare enough; productions this confidently executed are as rare as unicorns. If you have ever had the slightest bit of interest in seeing this play, now is the time to pounce. -- David Barbour

(2 March 2016)

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