Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre is hard to take seriously. It’s literally all over the place, as poor Pericles sails hither and yon encountering incest, famine, betrayal, shipwreck, tournaments, true love, more shipwreck, loss, despair, resurrection, a whorehouse, a temple of Diana, and many happy returns. Decades pass in a flash, and there’s an anachronistic narrator in the person of 14th-century English author John Gower.
The story is based on the fictional adventures of Apollonius of Tyre, a popular medieval adventure yarn best known in England through Gower’s Middle English poem Confessio Amantis. (Shakespeare’s renaming of the protagonist was probably influenced by Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, also a source for the Gloucester subplot of King Lear.)
The wild variance of tone creates an interesting puzzle for those who choose to stage it, as California Shakespeare Theater is doing now and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival will be doing later this summer. Do you play the lamentable tragedy and cruel comedy relatively straight, or camp up its ridiculousness?
Minneapolis director Joel Sass goes back and forth between the two approaches in a Cal Shakes restaging of the adaptation he originated at the Guthrie two years ago in which eight actors play dozens of characters.
It’s a great-looking production. Melpomene Katakalos’s marvelous set has Persian rugs all over the otherwise sand-covered stage, a rack of decapitated heads and skulls, and an arch of twisted tree trunks through which the rolling hills outside the outdoor amphitheater become part of the scenery. The wind and cold also get into the act, enough so that on opening night people looked up into the sky nervously at the first crack of Jeff Mockus’ stage thunder. Raquel M. Barreto’s costumes are a colorful assortment of ethnic garb and the music an enthralling world music mélange with compositions by Greg Brosofske.
The show starts strong, with Ron Campbell as sword-twirling, Fu Manchu-mustached villain Antiochus and Sarah Nealis as his alluring, incestuous daughter. As our hero, blond and well-spoken Pericles, Christopher Kelly guesses the family secret and flees Antioch to save his skin from a near-bestial Alex Morf as aspiring murderer Thaliard. Reprising his role from the Guthrie production, Shawn Hamilton plays Gower as some kind of African shaman-poet, his head painted with tribal patterns and singing in a guttural voice that could almost be Tuvan throat singing or ululating like a call to prayer.
The action slows to a crawl back home in Tyre (in Lebanon) where reliable comic actor Danny Scheie as Pericles’ steadfast but boring elderly vizier Helicanus, advising his lord to go on the lam. It’s when Pericles goes to Tarsus, Turkey, in the next scene that the show goes all to hell. Campbell and Domenique Lozano’s lead-thick accents as governor Cleon and his wife Dionyza make all their moaning about the city’s famine virtually incomprehensible. The way they bow and scrape before blond, chiseled Pericles when he gives them grain is vaguely distasteful.
That discomfort is compounded in Libyan Pentapolis by a group of jolly fisherman dressed in big straw parkas that make them look like giant pom-poms. Here too the African accents are very thick and hard to understand. A running gag about always following the beloved King Simonides’ name with exclamations of “ay-ay-oh!” is kind of cute, but the fishermen’s shtick is too much of a broad ethnic stereotype to be funny.
The entrance of a big puppet elephant and the thoroughly charming Scheie as exuberantly grinning, aphorism-spouting Simonides (ay-ay-oh) help relieve the tension. Delia MacDougall’s accent as his daughter is vaguely Slavic, and virtually indistinguishable from her Russian one as the Bawd later on.
A whirlwind wedding, pregnancy, sea storm, and death in childbirth cause desolate Pericles to drop his baby off with the Turks while his wife’s body drifts away on the water. Meanwhile Lozano has to quick-change between hesitant foster mom Dionyza and the healer Lord Cerimon, who’s addressed as male although there’s no masculinity in Lozano’s performance.
Magically all grown up over intermission, Nealis is a standard-issue ingénue as Pericles’ daughter Marina. She has no trace of her foster parents’ troublesome accents, presumably due to Pericles’ good genes. When she’s sold into a brothel and starts converting johns to a life of virtue, there’s a bit of wackiness between MacDougall in a bawdy fatsuit and a hunchbacked Scheie armed with a plunger about whether to rape her.
There are a few moments of sheer delight in the production, such as a sudden pirate abduction or Campbell’s legs serving as a remarkably credible horse that his upper body is riding. In the end, however, it’s at best an interesting misfire in which the cringes outweigh the chuckles.