Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Understudy's Review of Bootleg Shakespeare
Actors carrying poles represent the ship Pericles uses on his journeys around the eastern Meditteranean, here beset by a storm in the Taffety Punk Bootleg Shakespeare production of William Shakespeare's Pericles at the Folger Theatre. Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Taffety Punk.
On an agreed-to midsummer’s day, actors from across the D.C. region head to the Folger Library, lines in their heads (and maybe their hands, too), to spend six hours (“give or take lunch”) with director, designers, and managers putting a William Shakespeare play through “the Bootleg process": cues, blocking, music, lighting, costumes, props, makeup. The end result on the Folger stage that evening is more than a final dress rehearsal but not yet polished by repetition and often leads to interesting improvisational moments. And there will be no repetition: This is a one-night-only production.
This is Taffety Punk's annual Bootleg Shakespeare production that, since its inception in 2007, has become one of the must-see events on the Washington, D.C., theater calendar. Never taking the easy route, the company usually chooses one of the rarely played and difficult scripts in Shakespeare's canon, and this year it tackles Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
"Must see," but my husband Eric can't see it because he is with his father in Charlotte, N.C., so I am here alone representing Shakespeareances.com. My theater background consists of two drama classes I took during summer school between eighth and tenth grades. There I learned, quickly, one, not to wash the light gels and, two, that my talent lay backstage inventorying costume storage, putting together props, sewing scenery, and turning sheet music pages. I did once have a walk-on role as the skunk (designing and making my own costume) at a picnic. This is my second time seeing Pericles, having attended the 2005 Shakespeare Theatre Company production, and I've also read the play a couple of times.
By 5 p.m., people have started an orderly queue for the highly sought-after free tickets. Old-timers enlighten newcomers on the upcoming but so worthwhile two-hour wait that hopefully ends with a ticket in hand. At 7 p.m., the theater doors open. As the audience enters, the stage is bare except for Music Director Amy Domingues playing her cello behind one of the theater's columns. She is little noticed as most people focus on quickly finding and claiming seats before looking around to see who else has come this year.
Just before curtain, Taffety Punk company member Marcus Kyd gives the standard preshow reminders and asks for a show of hands of those attending Bootleg Shakespeare for the first time. To his pleasant surprise. lots of hands go up. He then gives the background of “this party, we [Taffety Punk] throw for ourselves every year,” and reminds the old-timers of the Bootleg tradition while teaching newcomers their role: throughout the play, Director Lise Bruneau, who also is the prompter when an actor forgets a line, will shout “flourish,” the signal for the audience to respond with “doo-doot-a-dooooo!” This is rehearsed in kazoo-like tones.
Depending on the reference, Pericles is either a “comedy” or a “history” (where I personally place STC’s 2005 presentation). From the start, Bootleg Shakespeare’s Pericles belongs firmly among the comedies. An ensemble of actors plays Gower, each line spoken by a different actor. When they speak of the “testifying heads,” four actors take long bamboo poles from behind their backs and rest their chins on them, faces assuming various cartoon-character-like death masks for the rest of the scene.
Welcome to Antioch, ruled by King Antiochus (Chris Marino), whose skull-like white face paint, long white braids, and black top hat encircled by a jeweled crown recalls the voodoo practitioner in James Bond's Live and Let Die. He greets Pericles (in this portion of the play referred to in the cast list as "Early Pericles" played by Joel David Santner) come to Antioch to correctly answer a riddle in order to win the king's daughter (Rana Kay wearing an empire-waist dress of just enough stiff white fabric that it could hide an early pregnancy). Father and daughter make half-hearted, but ultimately useless, attempts to avoid their sexual interest in each other, even as the incestuous truth behind the riddle dawns on Pericles. Antiochus realizes Pericles has figured out the answer just as Pericles realizes his life is in mortal danger, so he quickly makes his excuses and escapes to his ship: two long thin poles held on either side of Pericles by four actors bobbing up and down as they cross the stage.
Bruneau shouts “flourish!” The audience responds with “doo-doot-a-dooooo!”
Santner plays Pericles as a hail-fellow-well-met, a hearty, informal, congenial comrade, while also bringing out other facets of his personality throughout his travels. As would-be suitor in Antioch, he is the hot guy with a chance to have the knowingly seductive girl enticing him—until he sees the truth. Shaken with revulsion and fear, he returns home and humbly seeks the advice of worldly-wise Helicanus (Daniel Flint), who sends him abroad until it is safe to return. With new resolve, Pericles boards his ship, standing at the bow (the tips of the poles meet in front of him). Setting sail he is “king of the world,” with arms outstretched and smiling broadly at the audience (a running joke for Early Pericles).
First stop, Tarsus. We know this by the “Tarsus” in white chalk on black that an actress walks across the stage in boxing ring–girl fashion. The citizens of Tarsus are starving—one citizen even appears to be chewing on the stage's back wall. Nice-guy-but-weak governor Cleon (Dan Crane) and his strong-willed wife Dionyza (Julia Brandeberry) are helpless. Pericles arrives with food, earning the King’s gratitude, the Queen’s fawning respect, and the people’s undying affection. On receiving a letter from Helicanus telling him Tarsus is not safe, Pericles again sets sail between the bobbing poles.
At sea, a mighty storm comes up. Billowing white fabric lengths descend from the balcony and blow side-to-side as an actress runs across the stage whipping a short white fabric length up and down. Pericles is shipwrecked.
The ring-girl sign announces we have reached Pentapolis. Three fishermen in peacoats and knit caps (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, James Flanagan, and Teresa Spencer) draw fishing nets from the sea, rescuing Pericles in the process. They tell Pericles of the knights jousting to win King Simonides’ daughter Thaisa in marriage, and Pericles determines to go to court and try his luck. As he joins the fishermen drawing in their nets, they pull in a child-size plastic red armor breastplate. Taking it as an omen, Pericles sets off.
At Thaisa’s birthday party all the guests are wearing colorful upside-down ice-cream-cone-shaped birthday hats. The knights (Marcus Kyd, Percy Kyd Bruneau, and Stephanie LaVardera) are directed to present themselves to Thaisa (Esther Williamson), who will translate the meaning of the love-focused mottos on their shields. The Knight of Macedon, though, does not appear to be the marrying kind: Percy Kyd Bruneau looks all of 8 years old and needs some help from the Knight of Sparta (the elder Kyd) on presenting his shield to Thaisa.
Pericles enters wearing an Iron Man mask for his helmet and carrying the breastplate (now decorated with oak leaves) for his shield. Thaisa distractedly translates the shield while focusing her attention on Pericles, which does not escape the notice of her father, King Simonides (Ashley Strand), who views Pericles as a country bumpkin gold digger. But Pericles wins the tournament, and when the irritated king commands the dancing to begin, the Prince of Macedon leads the rest in David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” flexing biceps and gyrating like Chippendale dancers. The ladies join in the dancing, giving Thaisa and Pericles the opportunity to dance together, totally unaware of King Simonides’ baleful eye and ear toward them. The king dismisses the party, separates Thaisa and Pericles, and sternly addresses them. Thaisa stubbornly holds her own against her father (it looks like she’s played this scene before), while Pericles is more circumspect, not wanting to anger yet another king, especially since he is truly falling in love with Thaisa. As King Simondes continues to rail at the couple, he also begins sharing giddy asides with the audience about how much he has come to like Pericles and wants the couple to marry, punctuating his enthusiasm with a jig.
Gower narrates a dumb show, portraying the transition from wedding through daughter Marina’s birth and Thaisa’sseeming death during a shipwreck, ending up at Ephesus. As the next scene opens, an improv moment happens: Cerimon (Paul Reisman) enters shouting for his servant Philemon, who does not reply as scripted and is not to be found as Cerimon looks around for him while calling the servant's name. Honestly puzzled, he is joined on stage by one of the court's gentlemen, as scripted, and together they try to speak Philemon’s lines and theirs. Finally, Ebrahimzadeh rushes on stage as Philemon, apparently having just completed a costume change. The scene continues through Thaisa’s rescue and resuscitation, and as Pericles' wife revives, the first words she hears are those of Cerimon shouting, “She is alive. Alive!” in his best Dr. Frankenstein impression.
Percy Kyd Bruneau (left) and Marcus Kyd play pirates who rescue Marina from being murdered but sell her to a Mytilene brothel in Taffety Punk's Bootleg Shakespeare production of William Shakespeare's Pericles at the Folger Theatre. Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Taffety Punk.
Gower moves us forward in time. Marina (Amanda Forstrom, in her first Bootleg production) has been left with Cleon and Dionyza in Tarsus and grown into a beautiful, intelligent, talented young woman. This incites Dionyza’s jealousy because her own daughter is being overshadowed, and she orders Leonine (Ebrahimzadeh, again) to kill Marina. Leonine fully intends to, but Marina gives him pause with her urgent questioning, unintentionally buying enough time to be kidnapped by pirates, played by the trio who portrayed the knights in Pentapolis, with both Kyd and Kyd Bruneau each wearing a hook for a hand. They carry her off to Mytilene and sell her to a brothel. Learning from Cleon of Marina’s “death,” Early Pericles sails for Tarsus and, as he visits Marina’s monument, he is transformed in a bit of stagecraft into Older Pericles (Chris Genebach) and departs a broken man.
The authorship of Pericles has been debated since its first appearance in the Third Folio, and its absence from the previous editions of Shakespeare's collected works has made the whole play suspect. Most scholars, though, see his hand in the last three acts of this play, and if he didn't write the Mytilene brothel scene, he would have wished he had. Marina is so pure, she transforms all of the johns who come to use her into paragons of virtue. The brothel's staff, Bawd (Kimberly Gilbert), Pander (Reisman) and Bolt (Flanigan), are presented as white trash as they bully Marina to submit to the enterprise's business plan, but though full of virtue, Forstrom plays Marina with a fierce stubbornness—no pushover, she.
Enter Lysimachus, (Joe Mallon), governor of Mytilene, more than willing to patronize the brothel as long as he won’t catch anything by doing so. Despairing, but yet her mother’s daughter, Marina enters (wearing angel wings) and berates the “honorable” Lysimachus, tearing apart his self-deception. Chastised, he gives her gold so she can make her own way and departs. She then forestalls Bolt’s rape by speaking to him as a fellow prisoner trapped in the same deplorable situation and she gives him Lysimachus’ gold so he can begin a new life, thereby earning his honest effort to see her quickly and safely released by Bawd and Pander.
Gower presents the news that Marina finds safety in an “honest house” and makes her living using the skills and training Cleon taught her. Having lost his wife and daughter, Pericles, with a now grey-haired Helicanus, lands at Mytilene. Lysimachus recommends that Marina minister to Pericles in his grief and he begins responding to her. Seeing reflections of Thaisa in Marina, he almost fearfully questions her about her background. Her answers confirm his suspicions and his hope dawns. Domingues provides the music only Pericles can hear, lulling him into a peaceful sleep, and the goddess Diana (Spencer) appears to him dressed as Wonder Woman, except with a silver bow instead of a golden lasso. She directs Pericles to tell his story to the “maiden priests” at her temple.
Thaisa, clothed like a votaress, doesn’t recognize Pericles, much less Marina, and faints as she hears his tale of all that has happened to him and their daughter. Probing questions and revealing answers quickly pass back and forth until all parties are convinced each other is really each other. All that's left is for Gower to get in one final speech and the company chasing Cleon and Dionyza off stage, their treachery discovered.
The Bootleg process does not allow much delving into the Shakespearean merits of this play—there simply isn't enough time, so the actors use recognizable comic references to move the story along. Some portrayals, however, suggest threads to other Shakespeare works. The fishermen reminded me of the gravediggers in Hamlet, Simonides takes a page from Prospero's book, Dionyza seems to be channeling Lady Macbeth, and Thaisa is part of a tradition stretching from Emilia in The Comedy of Errors to Hermione in The Winter's Tale. In Santner's playing, Pericles is a singular character in the canon, and Forstrom brings a significant edge to what would seem like a typical Shakespearean romantic heroine.
For this event, though, the doing is the theatrical experience.
July 24, 2014