Sunday, March 6, 2016

Pericles: The Island Hopper

Pericles, Prince of Tyre, sort of by William Shakespeare, at Theatre for a New Audience (“TFANA”), Polonsky Shakespeare Center

I haven’t seen Pericles, Prince of Tyre in decades, and when I saw the Michael Greif production downtown at the Public in the nineties, I enjoyed it as a lark.  Perhaps because of the old-fashioned theatrical effects they used, like a rumbling sheet of metal for thunder…ah the good old days.

This time around it’s directed by Trevor Nunn, whose credentials are pretty darned good.  And yet…. perhaps too good.  Pericles must surely be Shakespeare’s oddest and even most doubtful play.  Certainly it’s doubtful that Shakespeare had a hand in the first “half.”  Occasionally the verse sounds like Shakespeare — the second half of the play, for instance, flows much better than the first.  The first, however, is rather like a jiggly early black-and-white film being rolled manually.  It moves in starts and stops, so the story jumps and starts as well.

Don’t get me wrong.  This production has quite a few good points.  I’m guessing that the play’s the thing that gets my goat.  It has old stories linked together only by Pericles, with no call to think the stories are from the same eon.  Most importantly, if I captained or owned a ship and I saw Pericles coming, I’d ban him from my boat.  The man is bad luck.

The focus of the stark set was a striking bronze disk at the back of the stage.  While it reminded us of the poorly used bright disk used to blind the audience in last year’s Antigone [] at BAM, this one was used to much better effect.  The bronze disk looked battered, then patterned, then glowed around the edges, then opened at center, sometimes into a doorway, large or small, sometimes to appear a porthole to view the play’s storms at sea.  All sorts of worlds and images live behind the bronze disc, including one that allows old Gower the storyteller to materialize, seemingly a ghost in another dimension, by stepping into our dimension and onto the stage. Raphael Nash Thompson’s practiced voice booms out telling the tale from days gone by, an old tale, of Prince Pericles.  Often he sings it — there’s a lot of singing in this production, and it is very fine.  Gower is amused and amusing although at times pushing the lesser language a bit too hard.
The next to enter the thrust stage is Pericles, Prince of Tyre, as depicted by Christian Camargo.  Full disclosure:  I am not a fan of Mr. Camargo.  I find him superficial, line-driven instead of character driven.  In short, I typically do not believe him to be the character he purports to be.  His performance as Pericles was not atypical.

The cast of Pericles at TFANA (Photo: Richard Termine)
Pericles is a foolish young prince, ready to follow in the footsteps of other foolish princes who vie for the hand of a king’s daughter in Antioch.  This is the story with a shocking riddle.  Since it’s perfectly clear what the answer to the riddle is, and only Pericles has solved it, one wonders if the other princes were too afraid to say it out loud.  Their skulls, perched on poles seen through that wonderful portal at the back of the stage, are a clear warning to any princes who want the king’s daughter.  The King of Antioch, in a rather operatic performance by Earl Baker Jr., isn’t willing to give up his daughter to marriage, since he is committing incest with her.  His daughter, nicely played by Sam Morales, is not as enamored of her father as he is of her, so earns a bit of sympathy.  But not from Pericles.  The scenes in Antioch set the tone of the play in which royals are clothed richly, but the style is dependent on the character.  The King of Antioch is in a billowing and shiny fabric in a rich jewel tone.  His daughter is in a translucent version. Costume designer Constance Hoffman does a fine job differentiating the island nations in dressing the characters. 

The last particular person we meet in Antioch is Thaliard, whom the peevish King orders to find and kill Pericles for guessing the riddle and becoming a threat to the king’s standing in the world.  Reputation, reputation.  Thaliard is marvelously played by Oberon K.A. Adjepong, who reappears in Tyre without achieving his goal.

The scenes in Tyre are perhaps the dullest with the most tangled language.  Here is where we cannot blame the actors or director but rather the sloppy transmission of the play through the ages.  Philip Casnoff as Helicanus is stuffy and pompous and rather monotonous, so I was never really sure if he was loyal to Pericles or not.  Pericles and Helicanus decide the safest thing for the former to do is to travel until Antiochus gets tired of chasing him or, preferably, dies.  This is not merely to protect Pericles’ life — Antiochus is not above making war against Tyre in order to punish Pericles, based upon an alleged slight.  To avoid involving his kingdom in his troubles, Pericles loads his ships and travels.

The beautifully designed theatre allows for many entrances so the actors in famine-devastated Tarsus crawl moaning onto the stage from the rear of the house.  Will Swenson is very effective here as Cleon, Governor of Tarsus, although he often relies too heavily on his beautiful voice.  As his wife Dionyza, Nina Hellman goes from grateful to villainous through the course of the play and excels at both (and then takes a turn as an unrecognizable Goddess Diana).  Pericles’ arrival with food for the starving nation makes him a beloved hero in Tarsus, but he continues his travels.

Pericles’ first shipwreck lands him alone on the beach at Pentapolis, where apparently the people are very nice and generous.  In a tedious scene, three fishermen talk about nothing on the beach until the bedraggled shipwreck victim comes upon them.  They help him to enter a jousting contest for the favor of the King of Pentapolis, Simonides, who is warmly and wittily played by John Rothman.  The various young men jousting are also vying for the affection of the king’s daughter, Thaisa, a lovely young woman who is as kind as her father, played by Gia Crovatin.  In his battered armor and torn clothes, Pericles (still utterly charmless as he is still played by Mr. Camargo) wins her heart, the king approves, and the couple is married.  It is in Pentapolis that Pericles learns of the death of his father, whom we did not meet when we were in Tyre, so he must take upon himself the yoke of leadership.  He and his now pregnant wife Thaisa head back to Tyre.  Which, alas, must be accomplished by boat.
Christian Camargo, Gia Crovatin.  (Photo:  Henry Grossman)
The second storm at sea is enacted onstage by actors swinging on ropes, and Thaisa screaming as her time comes near.  She is accompanied by her servant Lychorida, well played by Patrice Johnson Chevannes.  Thaisa’s child is born healthy, but the mother apparently dies in childbirth.  Thaisa’s body is placed with ritual, jewels, and gold into a coffin and sent overboard as the sailors try to save the ship.  Pericles names his daughter Marina and lands next back at Tarsus, where he leaves the upbringing of his now motherless daughter to his old friends Cleon and Dionyza.  They are delighted to take in the beautiful child, particularly since Dionyza has her own daughter and can bring them up together.  Pericles leaves his wife’s old nurse Lychorida with his daughter and goes off to Tyre.

Meanwhile, on another island nation, Ephesus, a coffin washes ashore and is brought to the local lord, Cerimon, who is a physician.  Earl Baker Jr. reappears in this much less showy role, and does very nice work as he inhabits this primitive physician.  Cerimon discovers that the body in the coffin is not dead after all.  Thaisa, believing her husband and daughter dead in a shipwreck, goes off with Cerimon to the temple of Diana where she will live her life as a votaress of that order.  

As in The Winter’s Tale, 16 years pass so that the baby will be a young woman for the second half of the play.  Marina, still in Ephesus with Dionyza and Cleon, has grown to be perfect and beautiful and virtuous.  Marina’s nurse Lychorida has died, leaving her alone with Cleon and Dionyza, whose daughter, while sweet, is a clod next to Marina, which is demonstrated onstage as the dear friends dance together – Sam Morales reappears in the silent role of Dionyza’s daughter, and is delightful.  All the boys fall for Marina, so Dionyza decides she must die.  She calls upon Leonine (well played by Zachary Infante), a servant who clearly is infatuated with Marina, to kill the girl.  He fails, and pirates come and take her away to Mytelene, where they sell her to a bawd, who is hilariously played by Patrice Johnson Chevannes
Earl Baker Jr., Christian Camargo, Lilly Englert, Gia Crovatin, and Raphael Nash thompson.  (Photo: Henry Grossman) 
Lilly Englert plays Marina.  I’ve seen her work before and enjoyed it, but this time I just could not fall for her virtuous Marina.  Physically she was all she should be, fearful, proud, disdainful.  But Ms. Englert could not convince me that this girl could convert the pander and the customers to just sit and listen to her talk or sing or dance.   Tough role, Marina.

Meanwhile back in Tarsus, Cleon berates his wife but can do nothing as they all believe Marina is dead.  When Pericles returns for his grown daughter, he is shown her gravestone.  Devastated, he vows to never change his clothes, cut his hair, or bathe and goes off in another ship, this time with his buddy Helicanus.  They arrive in Mytelene, and the converted Governor hopes that Marina can convince the man to speak, eat, live again.  Marina sings with a friend, gets no response, talks to him, touches him.  She gets a response to that, and it is rage.  They discover themselves to one another and all is well — this scene should be magical, and while Mr. Camargo is a bit more believable than usual, the scene falls flat and feels forced.  Pericles is transformed to a man who must take revenge on his old friend Cleon, but first must make a sacrifice to Diana, which means going to Ephesus, where, you guessed it, the father and daughter are reunited with Thaisa. 

At last, it’s almost over.

Director Nunn has cast a threesome of divergent actors as the threesomes that appear in the many locales of the play:  In Tyre, they are three unnamed lords, in Pentapolis three unnamed fishermen, and the three reappear in Ephesus and Mytelene individually.  These actors include one of my favorites at TFANA, John Keating, another who is not my favorite Zachary Infante, and a third with whom I am not yet familiar, Ian Lassiter.  Each one does his best work when not part of a threesome — Keating funny and touching as the pander in Mytelene, Infante very good as the reluctant murderer in Tarsus, and Lassiter grown to a three-dimensional human as the converted Governor Lysimachus in Mytelene. Keating is fine in all his roles, clearly the most experienced Shakespearean actor of the three.

Robert Jones’ scenic design is marvelous, in concert with Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting design.  Fights by J. Allen Suddeth were rather disappointing, but the choreography by Brian Brooks was pleasing, as were music and songs by Shaun Davey.  The evening begins with music, string instruments and percussion, all very well done by Pigpen Theatre Co., with John Blevins, Philip Varricchio, and Jessica Wang beautifully accompanying the action of the play from the mezzanine level of the theatre.

All in all, a pretty good production of a difficult and rather nonsensical play.  The designers, director, and performers all used the space of the Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage to its fullest extent and did their best with a “mouldy tale.”*  If you’ve seen Pericles, you needn’t see it again.  If you haven’t, this production at TFANA may be worth your time, if you’ve got 2 ¾ hours to spare. 

*Ben Jonson on Pericles, “Ode to Himself” (1631)

~ Molly Matera, signing off....not to re-read Pericles.