The cast of Pericles, now onstage at the Folger Theatre, will have lived through countless famines, shipwrecks, and tournaments by the time they complete the play’s three-venue run. Beginning at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in early 2015, the production in DC closes December 20th, then moves to The Guthrie in Minneapolis for six weeks. When they take their final bow in mid-February, they will have spent more than a year in one of the Bard’s lesser-performed works.
What does it take to sustain a run of that length? Some members of the cast hold fast to traditions, which travel with them from one venue to the next. One actor convenes the others in a dressing room once a week to do shots, another paces the length of the theatre before curtain. They can tell you exactly how many performances they’ve logged – exactly 143, on the day I stop by to speak with three members of the ensemble.
Though we don’t often see Pericles produced these days, in Shakespeare’s time it was something of a fan favorite. Pericles traces the life journeys of its title character and his immediate family – his wife, Thaisa, and their daughter, Marina – over the course of many years, beginning before his marriage and ending with the family reuniting fourteen years after becoming separated. The characters venture between the cities of Ancient Greece, embarking on both literal and emotional journeys in the process.
I sat down with Wayne T. Carr (Pericles), Scott Ripley (Antiochus / Simonides / Pandar / Ensemble), and Jennie Greenberry (Marina / Antiochus’ Daughter / Ensemble) to talk about the journey behind the journey – the experience of performing the same play for nearly a year.
Scott Ripley worked with director Joseph Haj and much of the current creative team on a 2008 production of Pericles at PlayMakers Repertory Company. Having played the title role in that run, he was more than familiar with the text when joining this cast. But he recalls the process of learning and inhabiting the script as similar to Carr and Greenberry’s experience – approaching the play without much prior knowledge or expectation.
“When I first worked on this play, I went in thinking, meh, it’s good. But then you live with it for a while and you realize, wow, it’s great,” he says. “There’s so much depth, and it’s so rich and the language and imagery are just incredible. It’s something that you can’t get through just a reading or two. Or even a two week rehearsal period. Even having rehearsed it twice, having lived with it for a year or so – and we’re not done – we’re still finding those moments. Not just with my roles but with other actors. I’ll hear something and go, ah, that’s what that means! And I expect we’ll all have more of those moments as we go on.”
Those moments, the others chime in, help to keep the work fresh after logging so many performances.
“Show #98 I had a breakthrough,” says Carr. “I thought, oh, that’s what’s happening with this guy right here. That’s part of the joy of doing it for such a long period of time. If you have the patience to explore a show, and a character, and characters in some cases, for that period of time, you can constantly find something new in it. It’s a joy to have the opportunity over and over again to invent and attempt those little challenges that I create for myself in order to keep it fresh night after night.”
I ask if any breakthroughs specifically come to mind.
Ripley remembers a moment rehearsing a ring exchange in the dumbshow. “Later, at the very end of the play, Thaisa recognizes Pericles because he’s wearing a ring that her father gave him. And I remember working in rehearsal one day on that scene, where I was onstage but just as an ensemble character, and thinking oh man, the ring. That’s such an important thing. And so I built this entire subplot around the ring, that it was given to me by my wife and it means so much to me, so that when I give it to him it’s a big gesture. When I show it to Thaisa first, before I give it to him, in that moment I’m telling her that I’m going to give Pericles the ring that her mom gave me.”
Ripley describes using the ring in another scene, where he’s conning Pericles. In that moment, he plays with the ring, suggesting nervousness or dishonesty.
Greenberry, meanwhile, describes the whole play as a breakthrough for her. With a background predominantly in musical theatre, Pericles marks her first foray into professional Shakespearean acting. “When I was offered this contract last year, I thought, I wanted to branch out and this was definitely the way to do that. The entire process has been about discovering not only these characters and the world that they inhabit, but also about my own strengths and weaknesses as an actor and a storyteller. Probably the biggest breakthrough I had in this production was confidence. Realizing that I don’t need anyone’s permission to be on that stage, telling this story.”
But indeed, the strong cast and innovative design team have been met with the permission and great approval of audiences back home and here in the District.
“In Ashland,” says Carr, “it’s like a tradition for audiences. They’ve been coming for thirty-plus years. Their parents brought them, they bring their children, that kind of thing. You have actors who have been there for thirty-plus years. And so these families have watched them from their early twenties into their later careers. And so they take a lot of ownership. That’s not the case here. We’re new in town. In some ways it encourages us to work even harder.”
The new venue and audience, Carr adds, provides yet another way to keep the work fresh. “We’ve done 137 shows,” he says, “and now we’re changing it. Coming here is like a restart. It’s a moment for us to stop and reinvest ourselves in what we’re doing. Deepen things, find new stuff. And I assume the same thing is going to happen at the Guthrie.”
“The show is easy to relate to for so many people, wherever we are,” Greenberry says. “Because as Joe [Haj] says, it is the story of a life lived. Who among us hasn’t experienced grief or loss, or would like the opportunity to say goodbye to that person or see them one more time? Just heading out into the unknown, it’s wonderful. I absolutely love doing this show every night, and it’s a privilege to share it with my castmates and the people of DC.”