One block west of the main drag through Eastern Market, in the cozy Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, the aptly named troupe We Happy Few has an amusing, engaging winner of a show with their take on Shakespeare’s underappreciated action adventure comedy Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
Pericles, like Cymbeline, is (probably) late-career Shakespeare relying comfortably on formula and collaborators/protegees, where instead of cribbing from history books, recently translated/printed ancient tales and his competition, he starts stealing from himself.
With Pericles we find Shakespeare and his co-writer (probably George Wilkins) riffing and cherry-picking through his market-tested tropes, up to the point of winking self-satire. Apparently it was quite a crowd-pleaser in its day, despite its curious omission from the First Folio, and it was one of the first plays produced after the theatres re-opened following the Restoration.
This is a complex, epic tale with no overarching plot, per se, it’s more of a serial adventure that chucks the Aristotelian storytelling model overboard. An incestuous riddle, assassins, famine, shipwrecks, tournaments, wooing, marriage, tragedy at sea, a beautiful virtuous daughter, pirates, prostitution, reuniting, and happy endings all around.
It would be the epitome of folly to stage this realistically; six different locations, two shipwrecks, dozens of characters. Who has the resources for this? But it lends itself to just as well to a gritty smaller company devoted to minimalistic clever staging and a small cast well-suited to playing multiple roles. And wouldn’t you know it, We Happy Few is just that company.
An ensemble of seven nimbly shifts between some three dozen characters, under Kiernan McGowan’s direction, it’s a fast-paced and cleverly staged charmer with an ‘anything goes’ spirit that echoes the randomness of the plot. Some choices come off a bit too random; Jon Reynolds serenades and strums the old Tommy James psychedelic classic “Crimson and Clover” during the courtship of Pericles and Thaisa… why exactly? Does it matter? They sell it. The design team comes up with simple, minimal, and effective touches to differentiate locales and characters.
closes June 8, 2018
Details and tickets
The ensemble are very well suited to their roles: Dave Gamble as the various sages, elders and kings, Charlie Retzlaff as various clowns and buffoons, Jon Reynolds as most of the devious and nasty ones, Jenna Berk as the virtuous young Marina etc, Jennifer Hopkins as the poised Thaisa etc, and Kerry McGee as the devious Dionyza etc all bring spirited energy and classical acting chops to the table. Grant Cloyd as the title character comes off comparatively subtle, underplaying Pericles as not so much an active adventurer as a passive wanderer. In a cast full of larger than life characterizations, he gets a bit overshadowed.
At around 100 intermission-free minutes, it breezes along. We Happy Few is one of the companies that came into being between my two DC stints, and I am pleased to report they are indeed just as billed: few in number, happy in spirit, and committed to fresh, contemporary takes on classics. I hope they have bigger audiences than on the Wednesday night I attended (we outnumbered them twelve to seven), though that was also the night of the Capitals’ game seven win, so that might account for it. As for the rest of their run, DC, get thee hence.
PERICLES by William Shakespeare, directed by Kiernan McGowan. Cast: Jenna Berk (Marina, etc), Grant Cloyd (Pericles), David Gamble (Simonides etc), Jennifer Hopkins (Thaisa etc), Kerry McGee (Dionyza etc), Charlie Retzlaff (Cerimon etc), Jon Reynolds (Cleon etc). Creative Staff: Raven Bonniwell (Choreography, Producer), Bridget Grace Sheaff (Producer), Arnel Sancianco (Visual Design), Moyenda Kulemeka (Costumes), Jason Aufdem-Brinke (Lighting), Ethan Balis (Sound/Composer), Evangelina Hakes (Asst Stage Manager), Alex Davis (Production Manager), Emilia Pazniokas (Production Asst). Production Stage Manager: Sam Reilly. Produced by We Happy Few Productions. Review by John Geoffrion.