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Fisherman 3: Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.

& Fisherman 1: Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones.— Act II, scene 1

As we first meet Pericles (Jay Goede), a riddle thrusts him onto the horns of a dilemma. But an even greater riddle posed by Pericles, Prince of Tyre hovers over the story it purports to tell. What is this play?  An adult fairy tale? A dream? A hallucination? A tragedy? A comedy? A romance? Who wrote it? Shakespeare? Someone else?

Pericles knows the answer to the riddle King Antiochus (Sam Tsoutsouvas) has presented to him as a prerequisite to winning the hand of his daughter (Gail Grate). The rub: if Pericles fails to offer the solution, he will be put to death but by exposing it he will reveal the King's incestuous relationship with the daughter. On the other hand, the mysteries surrounding the play itself don't seem to have solutions.

Pericles responds to his dilemma by catapulting into a magical mystery tour that includes not only "normal experiences" like storms and famines, but also such abnormal and paranormal phenomena as pirates abducting children, births and burials at sea, the waking of the dead and a lengthy visit to a brothel. Inconceivable coincidence brings the play to its resolution which, to stay on course, relies heavily on a chorus (Philip Goodwin), in the person of John Gower, a contemporary of Chaucer who recorded one of the tales on which Pericles is based.

Shadowing Pericles like a spirit, the character of Gower supports the notion that the play is not Shakespearean. Although the "ceremonial" use of choruses can of course be found in Shakespeare, in Pericles, the play depends on the chorus as its tour guide. Even with this crutch, a firm director's hand is needed to avoid leaving the audience strewn like lost baggage along the route.

Brian Kulick directs with such force, and also with cleverness and imagination, but still cannot overcome the bewildering arc that plagues Pericles. A heavy dose of doubling in this production -- cast members are called upon to play as many as four characters -- does not help. Kulick seems blind to the difficulties this can present to an audience. Costume designer Anita Yavich attempts to sort out the locales with color-coding (Antiochans wear black with red belts, those from Tyre wear blue, in Tarsus one wears red over black and so on), but Philip Goodwin is permitted to wander in and out of character invisibly, leaving us scratching our heads trying to discern whether he is supposed to be to a medieval writer (Gower) or Pericles' lieutenant Helicanus. Easily remembering the presence of Sam Tsoutsouvas as the King of Antioch in the opening scene, when he reappears a few minutes later as Simonides, King of Pentapolis, we have to check our facts to make certain Antioch has not accidentally conquered Pentapolis.

Kulick has teamed again with his set designer from last season's A Dybbuk (see review linked below), and again the ingenious set design threatens to claim enough attention to warrant listing it in the cast of characters. A structural matrix that begins with a curiously Asian gold-leaf glow and evolves into an equally unusual post-modern industrial form, it relies on rigging, casters and even a few fairy tale surprises. This also holds true for Mimi Jordan Sherin's dynamic lighting. While it's hard not to be impressed with the thought that has gone into these elements, I am struck by the extent to which they seem diverting in a play that cannot afford any extra diversions.

The threads that hold the play's loose seams together are a group of very solid performances. It is not so much that the actors find new meaning or shed fresh light on their characters that is significant, but that they don't. Without a firm grasp of the language, these performances could easily careen out of control. Here, line readings are rendered with assurance and the important secondary characters harbor no outlandish surprises. Goodwin is a comfortable guide, Tsoutsouvas is downright regal and Miriam A. Laube is a delicate Marina. Geoffrey Owens is allowed his moments as Cleon, as is Benesch as his wife, but most of the extravagance is at the edges, and works: Francis Jue as a slightly outrageous Thaliard and Leonine; and Viola Davis, Torquil Campbell, Goodwin and Jue as suitably-slippery brothel denizens. This permits Goede to free-fall, when need be, and still have something to grab onto.

Few would argue that Pericles is a Shakespearean masterpiece, if it's Shakespeare at all. Kulick does, at least, make the trip an entertaining one. It tend nonetheless to confirm the play's best-remembered lines, quoted above from the mouths of fishermen.

CurtainUp's review of A Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds
by William Shakespeare 
Directed by Brian Kulick 
with Vivienne Benesch, Torquil Campbell, Viola Davis, Jay Goede, Philip Goodwin, Gail Grate, Francis Jue, Miriam A. Laube, Julio Monge, Geoffrey Owens and Sam Tsoutsouvas 
Set Design: Mark Wendland 
Costume Design: Anita Yavich 
Lighting Design: Mimi Jordan Sherin 
Sound Design: JR Conklin 
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (212) 239-6200 
opened November 9, 1998; November 22, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman November 10, 1998
The Broadway Theatre Archive

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