Flute, fiddle, and guitar sounds emanate from a corner tucked in the wings of the Folger stage setting up a kind of folk music-and-theatre production style. Suddenly the stage world grows dark, and then an enormous spray of stars opens up to the vastness of the night sky.
Stars seem to move together and form something reminiscent of an ancient celestial map for sea navigation. This magical moment sets the intention of Director Joseph Haj, suggesting that beneath the story of an unlikely hero, this Pericles is also a meditation on a universe where man often feels alone, embattled, and very small – and then there are miracles.
Pericles on the page is a cumbersome script, dubiously authored in parts by the bard Shakespeare. It proceeds in rambling picaresque style, so perhaps no wonder that at Folger Theatre, despite the fact that Folger is the oldest of our preeminent Shakespeare theatres, this is the first time a production of Pericles has graced its boards.
The production comes from The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And what a production. What a cast.
Haj has used everything tricky and problematic in this play to great advantage. He has dealt with a clunky cast of characters, many of whom are dropped after only one scene, with some astute double and triple casting. The doubling allows for some fast and furious fun in the cameos but also some powerful resonances. Daughter of King Antiochus, who suddenly turns and displays a tattooed back, bearing the grizzly branding of her father’s political and sexual ownership, is played by the same actress who returns later as Marina. Her first character is both haughty and creepy in her sexuality and bears no resemblance to the beautiful and bright young woman, daughter of Pericles, whom we meet in Act 2.
Haj has played up the outrageous twists and turns of plot by digging into the roots of street theatre, and allowing the actors (and audience) to have fun with the evil would-be assassins, the aargh! pirates who abduct a princess in the nick of time, a trio of silly sailors who sing and dance, and the several tempests that toss the hero as he makes his way from one dangerous city-state to another. The director makes his point that coherence of time and place is inconsequential for a rowdy evening of entertainment.
Most importantly, Haj has enlivened the precarious journey of Pericles and his hero’s risking the high seas, to serve as a meditation on the current crisis of Syrian and other refugees. Even the names of the cities are sadly more familiar to us because of the current conflicts.
There is a particularly poignant scene where Pericles gets washed up on the shore and stands shivering and vulnerable, while the three sailors, who, but moments before, had amused us so with their antics, sit glumly repairing their nets and baskets, ignoring the figure before them. They then pass through the stages of suspicion and rejection before finally coming around to see the economic opportunity this poor immigrant offers. (There is a note in the program that some of the show’s proceeds will be donated to the UN Refugee Agency and in particular to the many displaced families from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, demonstrating once again the role that artists play, sharing from their wallets and their hearts.)
As Pericles, Wayne T. Carr heads up an exceptional cast, all who can sing and several of them who serve as instrumentalists when they’re not in a scene. Carr’s development from a somewhat feckless adventure seeker, who is better on the jousting field than on the dance floor, to a broken old man is very moving.
One of my favorite moments is in the funny and yet quite touching scene where Pericles dances with Brooke Parks’ Thaisa as they fall in love before us. He gradually drops his awkwardness and she her desire to have a lively dancing partner. They slowly come together, pressing their bodies together and simply swaying in the gentlest of unspoken dialogue.
Gentle is an expression I would use about the entire production – an odd way to describe a piece that includes incest, abduction, betrayals, assassination attempts, and drownings. Yet Haj keeps pulling us back into the moments where the resilience of the human spirit, virtue, and love create space for miracles. These moments are so affective, they achieve, for many in the audience, a teary, transformative experience.
Part of this success is the way the actors blunt one character’s evil intentions by letting the story move through them and then move on into another character.
Several of their character transformations defy our ability to recognize the actors beneath the guises. Scott Ripley, as the incestuous and lethal Antiochus, returns later as Pandar in a bawd house, convincing as a cross between Liberace and an Elvis impersonator. Jennie Greenberry manages to play both a sensuous temptress, then transforms totally to the grounded and virtuous Marina. I mentioned Parks before, but she is a totally delicious actress shape-shifting between a lovely girlish Thaisa to the worldly, evil “wicked stepmother” figure of fairy tales as Dionyza. Even in the doubling of Lychorida and Diana, Emily Serdahl moves from vulnerable maid to goddess with ease.
Michael Gabriel Goodfriend makes a notable Governor Lysimachus. He visits the bawd house as a man ready to take advantage of his power by “breaking in” the virginal Marina yet leaves as one who has grown in virtue.
As for Michael J. Hume, this guy is that rare find that seems to live inside the skin of every Shakespeare character. His Helicanus, wise counselor to Pericles is beautifully spoken, grounded and contemporary in his every beat. Then, in the next moment it seems, he turns up as the ringleader of a scurvy band of fisherman who makes you believe he is part of a barnacled landscape. So when he comes out as the Bawd herself, perched atop high platform shoes with gold up-to-the knee lacings and boasting an almost impossibly ample bosom and rouged cheeks, well many in the audience just about split a gut.
U. Jonathan Toppo is one of those clown personalities who can steal every show. With a wink to the audience at his every turn, he goes from the melodramatic villain Thaliard to a capering dunce fisherman, and then the rather skulking canine Boult, a flunky in the Bawd’s house of disrepute.
The story is held together by Armando Durán, as Gower, as featured bard and chorus, who leads us through the tale. He has such a friendly and direct relationship with the audience that, sometimes in song, sometimes speaking the verse, he makes Shakespearean language and convoluted plot turns intelligible.
The music and lyrics by Jack Herrick include sweet love ballads, sea shanties, and bawdish and other humorous songs. The songs are beguiling in their entertainment and carry us all along, picking up any who get lost in the tale.
The design team has used a partly historical but mostly inventive and eclectic palette to create an integrated imaginative world. Costume designer Raquel Barreto has incorporated accents from ancient garments from the Middle East to create layers that allow actors quickly shift between story tellers and several characters, all pulled together with white garment accents.
Jan Chambers has managed to maintain the openness of the production style within the constraints of the Folger Theatre’s historical stage. Together with Rui Rita, Lighting Design, and Francesca Talenti, Video Design, they also incorporate a cyclorama with video projections to convey swelling seas, starry nights, and the fires of hell. It’s an update that is altogether satisfying. With director Haj, they have created some truly magical stage images. I shall never forget the figure of Pericles struggling to stay afloat in a green sea of parachute silk.
Folger should be applauded for bringing to Washington this marvelous Pericles. It’s a rare opportunity to see a production of this rarely produced play, and you will never see a better one.
Pericles by William Shakespeare . Directed by Joseph Haj . Featuring Barzin Akhavan, Wayne T. Carr, Darcy Danielson, Amando Durán, Michael Gabriel Goodfriend, Jennie Greenberry, Cedric Lamar, Brooke Parks, Scott Ripley, Zlato Rizzolli, Emily Serdahl, U. Jonathan Toppo, and Samuel L. Wick . Set Design: Jan Chambers . Lighting Design: Rui Rita . Costume Design: Raquel Barreto . Sound Design: Amandon Talenti . Video Design: Francesca Talenti . Produced by The Oregon Shakespeare Festival . Presented by Folger Theatre . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.