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Pericles, Prince of Tyre

A New Joy Waiting for Us

Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, November 18, 2015, D–9&11 (center stalls)
Directed by Joseph Haj

Pericles in white tank top and blue satin pants sits on the floor holding the lifeless body of Thaisa in light blue long dress with brown sleeveless top.
Pericles (Wayne T. Carr) holds his lifeless wife, Thaisa (Brooke Parks) in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of Pericles at the Folger Theatre. Below, Gower (Armando Durán) sings his tale. Photos by Teresa Wood, Folger Shakespeare Library

It's important to note up front that Director Joseph Haj considers William Shakespeare to be the sole composer of Pericles, Prince of Tyre despite stylistic scholarship identifying pamphleteer George Wilkins as responsible for the play's first half while Shakespeare gets credit for the rest. This is not to call Haj's academic credentials into question but rather to point out the foundation of the director's aesthetic approach to the play, which he first mounted for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last summer and is now playing at the Folger in Washington, D.C. (continuing on to the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in January).

And frankly, aesthetics count much more than academics when it comes to theatrical entertainment, especially with such damaged goods as Pericles. With his homogeneous outlook and embracing the play's framework of a tale told by an ancient poet, Haj has given us a delightful production that moves, sounds, and sings like folklore.

Even the play's fans acknowledge Pericles to be, compositionally, somewhat good to pretty great as it progresses from acts one through five. I'm among those who consider the first part of the play the work of an awful amateur and the second part brilliantly funny and exquisitely written. For me, watching Pericles is mostly about seeing how the production glosses the bad while getting on to the great.

None of that matters in Haj's hands. His Pericles is smart from the get-go, and through trims, slight rearranging of scenes and lines, and strong ensemble performances, Haj has come up with a presentation that indicates no obvious demarcation from one playwright to another. If Pericles was written with a single pen, Haj's hypothetical vision is that Shakespeare was indulging in a style and structure peculiar to the play.

Haj takes his guidance from the play's Chorus in the person of Gower, a 14th century English poet (a contemporary of Chaucer) whose long poem about Pericle's lifelong journey of adventures across the eastern Mediterranean served as Shakespeare's source.
          To sing a song that old was sung,
          From ashes ancient Gower is come;
Haj takes this first couplet of Gower's opening tetrameter speech literally: Armando Durán's Gower, dressed as a California guru wearing a natural linen tunic and several beaded necklaces and a medallion, sings most of his lines. He is backed by musicians to one side of the stage playing percussion, keyboards, violin, and guitar. The musicians are part of the acting ensemble, and cast members move in and out of musical duties throughout the production, singing harmonies and playing everything from cello and flute to kazoo.

The prevalence of music is thematic. When Gower sings,
          If you, born in these latter times,
          When wit's more ripe, accept my rhymes.
          And that to hear an old man sing
          May to your wishes pleasure bring,
it just makes sense that he should be singing these lines. The script is full of musical references. Music accompanies the entrance of the incestuous Antioch's daughter, and in this production Jennie Greenberry sings her lust ode to Pericles before revealing her riddle tattooed on her back. The knights vying for Princess Thaisa's hand in King Simonides' court dance at the feast after their tournament. Cerimon uses music in his attempt to revive the seemingly dead Thaisa, and this production extends the resurrection ceremony for several minutes as Barzin Akhavan's mystic doctor uses oils, massages, and incantations to bring the princess back to life (drawing out this episode builds anticipation in the audience). Marina sings to awake Pericles from his profound depression. "The music of the spheres" that only Pericles can hear lulls him to sleep for Diana's visit to him in a dream.

Haj expands on these references with interpolations of music and lyrics by Jack Herrick—just enough to make the production musical but not a musical. Herrick's lyrics are supplemental to Shakespeare's, blending in seamlessly. The one moment the play crosses into bona fide musical territory comes after Simonides' banquet. After the party, Pericles (Wayne T. Carr) is left alone on stage and starts singing a song of love and separation with the central theme of life being borne on the wind and the waves. He is joined in duet across the stage by Thaisa (Brooke Parks), scribbling out a letter to her father stating her preference for Pericles. It's as sweet a moment as any Broadway aria could hope to attain, but it also sets up a joke centered on one of the play's structural conundrums. The next morning, Simonides (Scott Ripley) approaches Pericles and commends him "for your sweet music this last night"; however, Pericles doesn't play any music at the banquet (in fact, in this production he can't even dance, a hilarious sequence as Simonides first tries to teach him some steps and then uses drink to loosen up the prince). So what "sweet music" is the king talking about in the original text? In this telling, it's that love duet, and after Simonides sings a bit of the Herrick-composed chorus Pericles and Thaisa had sung in the previous scene, Ripley's Simonides returns to the original script: "I do protest my ears were never better fed with such delightful pleasing harmony."

That's a fourth wall you hear dissipating. This Pericles is ever aware that it is staged entertainment. Costume Designer Raquel Barreto blends fashions of ancient Greece, east India, and 1970s' California—you might think yourself transported to an unplugged Earth, Wind, and Fire concert. Scenic Designer Jan Chambers' set includes puffy clouds above the stage and a painted backdrop of an ocean with a distant shoreline—a backdrop that becomes a screen to represent a starry night, a stormy sea, and Diana's astrological lodging. Rather than wait for Pericles to land on the rocky shores of Pentapolis before speaking his soliloquy about "earthly man" being victimized by "you angry stars of heaven," Carr gives this speech—expanded with other such laments from the play—while wrestling with billowing blue sheets representing roiling surf. He occasionally submerges through a slit in the fabric ocean before re-emerging and sputtering on with his speech. It's as much visual poetry as aural.

The actors also play with a self-awareness of their character types. U. Jonathan Toppo as the Antiochan assassin Thaliard—dressed in slicked-back mullet and leather vest and chains—plays his villainy to the hilt, even brandishing his knife at the face of a man in the audience. Later, as the pimp Boult, he uses men in the audience to represent the various customers of the Mytilene brothel. The three fishermen Pericles encounters after being washed up on the shores of Pentapolis turn their fishes of the sea parable into a jig that encompasses the whole audience, and when they accompany the plainly dressed Pericles to the tournament, they emerge from the audience. The actors speak their lines—whether Wilkins' or Shakespeare's—with strict attention to verse structure, giving their speeches a subtle but noticeable formality. This serves the folklore feel of the production but also sets apart the prose of the Mytilene brothel scenes.

And like any good folk tale, this one springs a great gotcha on you two-thirds of the way through. Shakespeare's most famous stage direction may be "Exit, pursued by a bear" in The Winter's Tale, but Pericles has another almost equally bizarre stage direction that similarly comes out of nowhere: "Enter Pirates." In this production, Gower jumps out on stage to speak the stage direction itself, and prototypical Jack Sparrowish pirates rush on to kidnap Marina, saving her from the grasp of Cedric Lamar's astonished killer Leonine. The utter ridiculousness of this moment takes me back to the American Shakespeare Center's production of Pericles last year. Aside from equally silly renderings of this scene, the two productions find much humor in the text by respecting the text—all of the text—rather than treating any part of it farcically.

Much of the humor in Haj's production comes from singular lines jumping out amid the folktale format. When Helicanus (Michael J. Hume) suggests that Pericles should travel abroad in order to escape Antiochus' wrath, his advice of "Therefore, my lord, go travel for awhile," sounds like an inviting marketing slogan, earning a big laugh. During the banquet in Pentapolis, Siminodes and Thaisa sit next to each other as they ruminate. Their lines are not officially asides, though some editors have made them so; here, they simply are not listening to each other. "By Jove, I wonder, that is king of thoughts, these cates resist me, she but thought upon," he says. "By Juno, that is queen of marriage, all viands that I eat do seem unsavory," she says. Looking across the stage at Pericles, she continues with an unbounded burst of lustful passion: "Wishing him my meat." That's what the script says, and though in verse this four-word sentence is set off from the rest with periods. The passage may be corrupt, but it's hugely funny here, espeically as it rouses Simonides from his meditation. "Huh?" he says vaguely, whereupon Thaisa speaks clearly the rest of the line—another short sentence—"Sure he's a gallant gentlemen." Parks' expression as her father follows along is one of "whew! that was close."

Whoever created the character of Thaisa—Shakespeare or Wilkins—created a thoroughly modern woman, and Parks enticingly mingles her empowered sensibilities with her girlishly romantic inclinations. She dotes on her father but readily defies him to have her man. Parks gives the role such willful strength and alert vulnerability peering through such an exuberant personality, Carr's Pericles can't help being bedazzled. Parks turns on a dime in doubling Thaisa with the role of Dionyza, the queen of Tarsus. Even as her kingdom is suffering famine and her husband, Cleon (Akhavan), is lamenting their woes, Parks' Dionyza displays a petulant attitude. This comes fully to the fore when she plots to kill Marina, whom she and Cleon have raised for Pericles after the supposed death of Thaisa. Parks' Dionyza is cagey manipulative with Marina and her would-be murderer Leonine, and in her last scene justifying the murder to Cleon, she displays a razor-sharp heart that's willing to kill him, too.

Gower wearing a natural linen tunic and several beaded necklaces and a medallion, with a violinist and guitarist in white in the backgroundRipley slides easily through his three disparate roles, too. He starts as the incestuous Antiochus, tyrannically evil in bearing and line readings. He turns in a playful Simonides, creating great comedy out of almost every line. He finishes as Pandar, the slimy proprietor of the Mytilene brothel. Hume, who plays a no-nonsense Helicanus and a jigging Fisherman, finishes as Bawd, madam of the brothel, wearing platform shoes with leather lacings up to her thighs under a white, draping, cathouse curtain of a dress. "Are you a woman?" the enslaved Marina asks Bawd, who is trying to coach the young virgin on how to be a prostitute. "What would you have me be if not a woman?" Bawd replies, and you can't help laughing as Hume matter-of-factly delivers the line.

Other than the title character, the real acting challenge in Pericles is the role of Lysimachus, the governor of Mytilene and a regular customer of the brothel until his conversion by Marina (she does that to all the customers—bad for business). A scene later he not only advocates to have Marina minister to the depressed Pericles, who has happened to anchor in Mytilene's port, Lysimachus ends up marrying Marina upon learning she is Pericles' daughter and a princess. It's easy to brand this character as a self-serving, opportunistic jerk, but doing so would not be in keeping with the play's redemptive ending. So, while Michael Gabriel Goodfriend wears an easy nobility in his nature, his Lysimachus also has given in to easy-to-come-by moral corruption. As Greenberry's Marina resists his advances—he has already paid for her services—Goodfriend's Lysimachus transitions believably from incredulity to dangerous anger before harboring his sensibilities in, first, fascination with this courageous woman and then respect. Goodfriend and Greenberry reveal this scene to be one of Shakespeare's masterpiece moments.

The play's centerpiece is, of course, Pericles, and Carr gives a centerpiece performance. Untroubled by the compositional transformation his role undergoes, Carr's characterization of Pericles is that of a man maturing with every step and misstep he takes. He's a brash but horny young man at the start, full of expectation of his promising life and self-confident enough to risk his head to gain the beautiful daughter of Antioch as his wife. Solving the riddle to win her, he simultaneously learns her incestuous secret, but he is savvy enough to slip out of Antioch's grasp. By contrast, in his courtship of Thaisa—or, rather, her courtship of him—he approaches with awkward shyness and uncertainty (when you hit on a woman whom you find out is having sex with her father and you're going to get killed for learning that, it can kind of make you apprehensive around other kings' daughters). Carr's Pericles gets frustrated but never loses hope as he's sea-tossed from one place to another until he learns of his daughter's supposed death, at which point he cracks into a deep, debilitating state of depression. Carr and Greenberry tug on our tear ducts when Pericles reunites with Marina, and Carr and Parks likewise bring lumps to our throats when Pericles is reunited with Thaisa.

And with that, Gower sends us on our way: "New joy wait on you! Here our play has ending." It is a joy waiting on us long after their play has ended.

Eric Minton
December 9, 2015

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