'Pericles': Theater Review

Pericles Production Still - Pub -  H 2016
Henry Grossman

Pericles Production Still - Pub -  H 2016

This ponderous take on one of the Bard's lesser efforts fails to enchant.

Trevor Nunn directs Christian Camargo in the title role in this Theatre for a New Audience production of Shakespeare's rarely performed late romance.

It's been over 400 years now. Is it OK to stop pretending we care about Pericles, Prince of Tyre?

The question is begged by Theatre for a New Audience's production of Shakespeare's late romance, which wasn't even entirely written by the Bard. Most scholars believe that the first half of the play was written by George Wilkins, and if the name isn't familiar, there's good reason. 

With its fantastical plot — which includes incest, famine, shipwrecks, pirates, plotted murder, resurrection from presumed death and forced prostitution, among many other melodramatic events — the play is an unholy mess. But don't take my word for it.

Referring to Shakespeare's plays, one commentator wrote: "Witness the lameness of their plots, many of which were made up of some ridiculous, incoherent story … I suppose I need not name Pericles, Prince of Tyre." The author was the poet John Dryden, although it could be argued that he was simply jealous.

The news surrounding this off-Broadway revival is its staging by four-time Tony Award winner Trevor Nunn (Cats, Les Miserables), marking the first time he's directed the play as well as his first Shakespearean production with an American company. At least now he can cross both items off his bucket list.

Christian Camargo, familiar to television audiences for his role as Dexter's brother, the "Ice Truck Killer," on the Showtime series, plays the title role of the prince who falls afoul of neighboring king Antiochus (Earl Baker Jr.) when he correctly deduces that his prospective father-in-law is sleeping with his own daughter. On the advice of the trusted Helicanus (Philip Casnoff), Pericles takes it on the lam, sailing the seas of the Mediterranean. At his first port of call, he single-handedly relieves the devastating famine of the people, earning the gratitude of the governor, Cleon (Will Swenson), and his wife, Dionyza (Nina Hellman).

Returning to the high seas, he falls victim to a shipwreck and washes up in Pentapolis, where he wins the favor of its king (John Rothman) and, more importantly, his beautiful daughter Thaisa (Gia Crovatin), whom he marries. But when he attempts to return to Tyre with his now-pregnant wife, she dies in childbirth during a terrible storm and her body is buried at sea to appease the gods. But of course, in Shakespeare, people often don't stay dead for long.

Sixteen years later, the daughter, Marina (Lilly Englert), has grown into a young woman under the care of Cleon and Dionyza, the latter turning murderously jealous. She orders Marina to be killed, but before that occurs, the girl is abducted by pirates — is the plot baroque enough for you yet? — and enslaved in a brothel where her virtue reduces her would-be clientele to sorrowful penitents. After that, well, suffice it to say that themes of redemption and recovery from loss come very much into play.

Taking his cue from the text, Nunn infuses the picaresque proceedings with generous amounts of song and dance, making an already long evening feel even longer. Plenty of resources have obviously been invested in the production, including a 22-person ensemble filled with reliable theater veterans and the members of PigPen Theatre Co. (The Old Man and the Old Moon), performing music composed by Shaun Davey.

But for all the furious activity onstage, the overall effect is curiously lifeless, due to both the diffuseness and unevenness of the material — the poetic language noticeably improves in the second half, presumably Shakespeare's — and the familiar flourishes that afflict so many Shakespeare productions. There are the requisite ominous sound effects; blasts of percussion; the use of such devices as billowing sheets standing in for ship's sails; the actors playing multiple roles, etc. Nunn is mightily straining for poeticism, when a light-hearted, winking approach might have produced more felicitous results.

The ensemble, sporting an incongruous blending of American and varying English accents, differs widely in effectiveness. The matinee-idol handsome Camargo fails to project the charisma necessary to anchor the proceedings, and Englert's pronounced speech impediment makes her dialogue hard to decipher. There's fine work by Casnoff and Swenson, among others, and Raphael Nash Thompson is a commanding narrator, even if he comes across at times like the Genie from Aladdin.

But it's Rothman who makes the most vivid impression. In contrast to the surrounding ponderous atmosphere, his King Simonides is vitally fun and engaging. The actor seems to be playing in a different production, and that's the one you want to be watching.

Venue: Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, New York
Cast: Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Earl Baker, Jr., Christian Camargo, Philip Casnoff, Patrice Johnson Chevannen, Gia Crovatin, Lilly Englert, Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtin Gillen, Nina Hellman, Zachary Infante, John Keating, Ian Lassiter, Ryan Melia, Sam Morales, Matt Nuernberger, John Rothman, Arya Shahi, Will Swenson, Raphael Nash Thompson, Dan Weschler
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Trevor Nunn
Music and songs: Shaun Davey
Choreographer: Brian Brooks
Set designer: Robert Jones
Costume designer: Constance Hoffman
Lighting designer: Stephen Strawbridge
Sound designer: Daniel Kluger
Presented by Theatre for a New Audience