Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Theater Review

Pericles, Prince of Tyre - H 2013

Pericles, Prince of Tyre - H 2013

This late period Shakespearean romance may be a notorious hodgepodge of commercial elements, but such a shrewd, splashy and sure production neither flinches at the play’s misshapen narrative nor shrinks from the full measure of its genuine climactic pathos.

The Jacobean-era play, which bears questionable Shakespearean authorship according to scholars, is mounted in Pasadena.

Globetrotting adventure and spectacle may be part of the recipe for tentpole movies, rather less often associated with Shakespeare. Yet they flourish in abundance in the “problem play,” Pericles, Prince of Tyre: incest, shipwreck, mass famine, a princess saved from assassination at knifepoint by kidnapping pirates who sell her to a brothel, martial-arts master nuns of Diana on the Isle of Lesbos (admittedly a directorial embellishment), a resurrected corpse, not one but two competitions for a maidenly hand replete with jousting and combat (and riddles with shameful secrets!), and at best estimate at least three storms at sea. And that’s just the first half. In fact, such preposterous and far-flung escapades have caused scholarly parsers of text to believe that part of the play just must have been written by another writer, a prosaic hack, though this show persuasively argues that maybe it is, as W.S. Gilbert would have it, just “jolly-good Shakespeare” after all.

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Not to go overboard: much of the action occurs offstage, as related with relish in a contrasting iambic tetrameter by a deliciously insinuating narrator, 14th century poet John Gower (Deborah Strang). As imaginatively realized within the established stage vocabulary by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, the swashbuckling maintains a certain quaint Elizabethan earnestness, cheeky without any distancing tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, though the structure may be unwieldy, the brisk pile-on of events has aged richly into something of a startlingly modern tone of epic theater storytelling, so knowingly archaic it feels somehow up-to-date, with fluid motion and pell-mell forward thrust. The color and fabrics of the costumes by Angela Balogh Calin (especially some breathtaking greens) lend an abstract tactility one might associate with a musical. In its mix-and-match meld of tonalities, the admittedly lesser Pericles fits comfortably alongside its soul mates A Winter’s Tale, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest, a satisfying bookend to the more sublime Cymbeline Bart DeLorenzo directed at the same house last season.

For in its second half, the familiar Shakespearean voice emerges with greater clarity and force. Like Cymbeline, Pericles ultimately transcends its outlandish concoctions with the power of reconciliation and a fully earned triumph of human virtue over the vicissitudes of a harsh, Hobbesian fate. Can a contemporary audience witness successive scenes of a virgin valiantly shaming a privileged governor and then a venal pimp into respecting her dignity and value through superior rhetoric and bearing without giggling derisively? It happens here, achieved by the extraordinary reading and compelling presence of Jules Willcox as Marina (who was contrastingly coquettish in a blonde wig in the first half as her mother Princess Thaisa).

Underneath their extensive incongruities, the apparently irreconcilable halves of Pericles actually echo with dualities of themes. Of one father as rapacious seducer and another as devoted penitent, of children abandoned and found, of corruption and redemption, of promises kept and broken – and, not least, the primacy of good genes. Usually the best a mounting of Pericles can hope for is a certain bumptious, kaleidoscopic quality. This satisfying rendition also touches the great Shakespearean truth of embracing that semblance of human goodness attainable only through struggle and recognition of the enormity of our fallibility.

Venue: A Noise Within, Pasadena (runs through Nov. 24)

Cast: Jason Dechert, Jules Willcox, Deborah Strang, Thomas Tofel, Michael Stone Forrest, Jane Macfie, Stephen Rockwell, Jill Hill, Jonathon Lamer, Sydney Berk, Seth Freed, Doug Harvey, Nicholas Jenkins, Chris Lanehart, Kristopher Lencowski, Jennifer Myers, Erin Scerbak, Katelyn Schiller

Director: Julia Rodriguez-Elliott

Playwright: William Shakespeare (and possibly others)

Sset designer: Jeanine A. Ringer

Costume designer: Angela Balogh Calin

Lighting designer: Ken Booth

Music & sound designer: Robert Oriol

Fight director: Ken Merckx