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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Additional Comments by Deirdre Donovan
Great king, Few love to hear the sins they love to act. — Pericles
Considering the season, Shakespeare's Pericles often affixed with Prince of Tyre might benefit from adding to the title, or, How I Got Home for the Holidays. Falling somewhere between Sinbad the Sailor and Days of Our Lives this convoluted, romantic adventure is one of the more picaresque comedies for which the Bard generally takes only partial credit (scholars have submitted the inference that Shakespeare finished, polished and otherwise improved the dramatic prose and poetry of one George Wilkins.) I like to take the position, that if it wasn't written by Shakespeare, it was written by someone almost as good.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Jon Barker) confides in Helicanus (John Hickok)
If nothing else, this rarely done, Greek-mythology-based story is ripe for playing its plot contrivances for laughs. For also not forgetting the sheer romanticism that propels the story, we have to thank director Brian B. Crowe. Now in his eighteenth season with the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Crowe gifts us with a charmingly conceived and cleverly staged version of what is not generally considered to be top drawer Shakespeare. Be prepared, however, to be thoroughly delighted as well as diverted, by this disjointed tale of insufferable suffering.
While I'm not entirely in agreement with Ben Johnson who labeled it "a moldy tale," we can all at least recognize it as a magical allegory, one that challenges a director as well as the audience. We can see how beautifully Crowe takes on the challenges of a play that wallows in excesses of passion and pain, with passages weighted down by the narrative driven by a chorus of Votresses.
The engaging cast appears all-on-board for adventure as they respond with perhaps more enthusiasm than finesse in this melodramatic Mediterranean world. But that is a good thing. I was captivated from the start by the look of the production in which the whistling of a chilling wind and an all-white winter has enveloped the ancient cities of Tyre and Antioch. Set designer Brian J. Ruggaber has draped the proscenium and framed the stage with crinkled clear plastic sheeting which when bathed in the silvery blue glow of Andrew Hungerford's lighting is a lovely sight. Grecian columns and a few mobile stone slabs are modest set pieces but, considering the limited budget, well serve the needs of this fast-moving story.
And who has the right to complain that almost everything in and about the plot appears trivialized for the sake of a chuckle. A program note by the director informs us that Shakespeare was "testing his craft in a radically new form." I'll buy that. And what does it really matter when everyone on stage as in the audience is encouraged to have a good time?
Tempers as well as temperatures do get a good deal hotter as our hero Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Jon Barker) sets forth on the implausibly prescribed adventures. The virile, good-looking Barker is terrific as the dashing, sea-tossed young prince errant who, fleeing for his life, shows us that he is also quite capable of distinguishing himself in a tournament for the love of his blonde-haired wife-to-be Thaisa (played by a vivacious Maria Tholl).
Prostitutes, pimps and penitent pilgrims as well as a mother-most-foul appear with the predictability of an afternoon soap opera. But you may not be able to stifle your laughter prompted by the slyly humorous performance by Andrew Criss as Simonides, the purposefully duplicitous King of Pentapolis. Among all the colorful and exotic costumes designed by Jayyoung Yoon, it is the billowing Pasha-styled pillow atop the King's head that is the prize accessory.
Given the luridness of the flagrantly incestuous relationship between King Antiochus (also played by Criss) and his daughter Hesperides (Kelsey Burke) whom Pericles initially woos, it is amusing to see how low comedy helps to relieve the sordid realities of life in a brothel. Kristie Dale-Sanders is tenaciously cruel and crude as the head bawd, as is also her sidekick Boult (Quentin McCuiston) amidst a bevy of worn-out whores.
Although she arrives late in the proceedings, the very pretty and pert Lindsey Kyler is a joy to behold as well as root for as Pericles's long-lost and innocent daughter Marina who brilliantly diverts the clientele from their lust. It is the insidiousness of the plan by the governor's wife Dionyza (a nicely devious turn by Jacqueline Antaramian) to remove Marina as a potential threat to her own less-attractive daughter that gives the play it forward thrust. Speaking of thrust, it was an ingenious notion to use the votresses posing as the living prow of the ship in storm-tossed waters.
Intricately plotted and calamity ridden as it is, this is a play in which continuity, structure and cohesiveness play only the smallest roles. The large supporting cast must be commended for doubling and for playing many small roles with aplomb. Jordan Laroya is stand-out as the Governor of Mytilene whose moral compass is changed by the pure-at-heart Marina.
Some amusing dance divertissements also contribute to the pleasures of this production. The STNJ last produced Pericles in 2002 (somehow and inexplicably I did not see that one). The last production I saw was in 1991 at the Public Theater in which Pericles was played by Campbell Scott (the son of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst) under the direction of Michael Greif. As Pericles doesn't reach our shores very often you should not miss this opportunity to book passage.
Additional Comments by Deirdre Donovan|
Next to Shakespeare's great tragedies-Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and Macbeth--Pericles might seem downright inferior. No doubt many critics, past and present, have shrugged this play off for one reason or another, faulting it for being too far-fetched, old-fashioned, or unwieldy to stage. But in spite of the play's peculiarities and theatrical history, the Bard's early romance has survived (it wasn't tucked into the First Folio but was preserved in quarto form).
However, finding a stage-worthy production is rare and therefore worth this Shakespeare-lover going the proverbial "extra mile" to see.
For this very reason I decided to take a train out of New York's Penn Station down to Madison to see the new production of Pericles at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Having enjoyed their inventive interpretation of their Timon a few years ago, I was game to take in Brian B. Crowe's new rendering of Pericles. Besides, having seen only two productions (The New York Shakespeare Exchange's shoe-string production last summer and the Judith Shakespeare's staged reading approximately a decade ago), I was hungry for a Pericles that was worth its theatrical salt and could manage to sidestep some of the technical difficulties and stage business that had derailed other productions.
Well, I'm happy to report that Crowe has cooked-up a Mediterrean souffle on the Drew campus. His new rendering of the old play casts a winking eye at the romance genre as well as being firmly grounded. Everybody on stage looked like they were having heaps of fun. And nothing smacked of staleness!
Though I went to an early preview, it appeared to me that Crowe had navigated through its theatrical waters quite well and managed, not only to keep his production afloat, but to ply it across its dramatic cross-currents as it shifted from coast-line to coast-line. The play's multiple geographic settings are no easy task to stage for even the most intrepid director. So bravo to Crowe for undertaking this project!
I was pleased that I browsed through renowned Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber's' brilliant essay on Pericles in her book Shakespeare, After All before my trip to Madison. Garber astutely points out there why the Bard's early romance can be such a tough go for directors to mount, and equally difficult for audience members to grasp. She explains that Shakespeare and co-playwright George Wilkins, (who is credited as co-author) leaned into the theatrical vogue of the day in creating Pericles where visual spectacle trumps the poetry of the piece. So Shakespeare was merely trying to keep pace with his times and meet the demands of London's commercial theater world. Or as Garber succinctly puts it: "Theatrical taste, like taste in all the other arts, changes with circumstances, with fashion, and over time, so it should not be surprising to find a preeminent playwright like Shakespeare able to write [Pericles]." She also cites in the same essay that Pericles, as in the Bard's later romances, takes on "the form of a dream." In fact, there's a paucity of poetry in this play. And its most memorable lines may well be the following about the hierarchy of fish in their natural marine world where "the great ones eat up the little ones." Hardly poetic, but it clearly paints the picture of the political situations and power hierarchy that the hero Pericles had to outmaneuver or flee in various countries in the unfolding story. And when he couldn't win at the political power game (He did guess King Antiochus's "incest" riddle in Antioch's court, but that only put the him at danger for being killed by the Kings' servant). Still, Pericles did eventually emerge triumphant. But it it would be only after 14 years had elapsed, and his infant daughter Marina could grow up, to miraculously restore his hope and faith at the play's denouement. (No classical unities in this play either!)
To return to the Drew production at Drew, if I have any criticism of Crowe's staging, it would be its length which had me making a hasty exit out of the theater before the curtain rang down to ensure that I caught the late train back to New York. As I headed back on the train to New York that evening, I found myself a tad weary but feeling far richer for seeing this new Pericles. Onn the cusp of the New Year, what play out of the Bard's canon better captures "rebirth" or new beginnings" than Pericles?
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Brian B. Crowe
Principal Cast: John Barker (Pericles), John Hickok (Helicanus), Andrew Criss (Antiochus, Simonides, Pandar), Kelsey Burke (Hesperides), Clark Scott Carmichael (Cleon), Maria Tholl (Thaisa), Jordan Laroya (Lysimachus, Thaliard), Kristie Dale Sanders (Bawd, Votress), Lindsey Kyler (Marina)
Scenic Designer: Brian J. Ruggaber
Costume Designer: Jayoung Yoon
Lighting Designer: Andrew Hungerford
Sound Designer: Karin Graybash
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ on the campus of Drew University.
Performances: Tuesday, Wednesdays, and Sundays at 7:30 pm; Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm.
From 12/04/13 Opened 12/07/13 Ends 12/29/13
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 12/07/13
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