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Daryel T Monson and Kelly Clare Toland.

Photography by Jeff Watkins

1/14/2024        PERICLES:  PRINCE OF TYRE                              Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse

SAGAS AND HEROES AND BARDS

pgm Pericles.jpg

So, let’s start out the year with a challenge.  How do we compose an “appreciation” of a production of one of Shakespeare’s more “problematic” works, a production that has a few issues of its own to overcome?  Let’s give it a go!

 

John Gower was a 14th-century poet, a contemporary (and alleged friend) of the great Geoffrey Chaucer.  He is primarily known for three long works, written in French, Latin, and (Middle) English.  One of his “lesser” works, the “Story of Apollonius,” was Shakespeare’s primary source for a sea-going saga of Heroes and Villains and Virtue and Evil and Time and Fortune, a saga called The Late, And Much-Admired Play, Called, Pericles, Prince of Tyre.

 

In true, anti-Aristotelian fashion, Pericles has to be Shakespeare’s most passive hero.  He doesn’t act but is acted upon.  He suffers trial after tragedy after threat until at last he is unable to talk or move or (we assume) even think.

 

And yet, his story is both compelling, and, in the right hands, memorable.

 

Shakespeare brings John Gower himself on to the Globe’s stage, and has him tell us the story, singing lays and odes of the prince, of those he meets, of those who betray him.  Of his great loves and his great losses. And of the kingdoms he passes through, a virtual Atlas of the Medieval Mediterranean:  Tyre, Antioch, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus, Mytilene.  One of the many strengths of this production is the costuming variations for the kingdoms (credit costume designers Anné Carole Butler and Clint Horne for an extraordinary job).

Along the way, Pericles solves a riddle from Antiochus, an incestuous king (the risk is joining the display of heads hovering over the set), then fleeing from Antiochus’s assassin;  he provides corn and succor to a famine-stricken Tarsus, led by Creon and his treacherous wife, Dionyza;  he woos, wins, and marries Thaisa, daughter of yet another ruler;  he loses his beloved wife to a storm at sea;  he leaves his newborn daughter (Marina because she was born at sea) with Creon and Dionyza, not realizing their penchant for treachery;  he travels for fourteen years, still fearing Antiochus’s assassins;  he learns of the murder of his daughter;  he falls into a state of numb catatonia.

 

As to his Thaisa, she survives the storm but believes she’s the ONLY survivor, so she becomes a priestess of Diana in the land where she washes ashore.  As to Marina, she is saved from her murderous guardians by pirates, who kidnap her and sell her to a brothel, where her goodness and honesty save her from that proverbial “fate worse than death.”

 

Since this is a lesser-known, little-read, seldom-performed play, I will stop the spoilers now and let you discover the ultimate fates of Pericles, Thaisa, and Marina.

 

Some of the plot points may seem more than a little contrived – Antiochus’s riddle is embarrassingly easy (which means those heads were of princes of charm and not wit), Dionyza flips on a dime to evil, Thaisa’s father insists on tests of strength and not character, all the villains meet fiery deus-ex-machina judgments, a supposed virtuous prince frequents brothels, a group of comic-relief fishermen are suddenly endowed with wisdom about politics and kings, Thaisa washes ashore and is found by a man of medicine who can restore her life, Diana sends the catatonic Pericles the right dream at the right time, etc, etc, etc.  It’s easy to see why there is some authorship debate on this play – it seems to be the plotting of a young writer who “studied nature’s journeymen” rather than actual people.  Coming at the end of Shakespeare’s career, one can only assume that the old boy was losing it, or that he just put his name on a younger scribe’s first draft to sell tickets, or even that the extant versions used for the first folio were all corrupted copies.  OTOH, there is enough breathtakingly lyrical language that an argument can be made (indeed has been made), that Shakespeare really polished up the story and all these contrivances were part of Gower’s original work.  I may have to track it down and read it myself.  Maybe.  If I brush up on my Middle English.

 

For those with a scoresheet, there are 70 characters in this play, most of whom (there are some cuts here) are played by a mere 12 actors of the Tavern troupe   And played well.  There can be some confusion as to names and such, but there is no puzzlement as to each of their roles in the saga.  Even yesterday’s understudy (Adam King, I believe, in for Andrew Houchins) nailed every characterization, every beautiful line of Iambic Pentameter.  I especially enjoyed some of the conceptual ideas behind the casting – the same actor (Kelly Clare Toland) plays the daughter of Antiochus, Thaisa, and Diana.  The same actor (Charlie T. Thomas) plays both Antiochus and the older Pericles (at one point, Pericles vows to never again bathe or shave or groom his hair – eww  -- so the actor playing young(er) Pericles (a stalwart Daryel T. Monson) must needs step back into more supporting roles.  This is a terrific ensemble who have a clear vision of the story and of their many places in it.

 

Director Jeff Watkins not only keeps the pace quick and easy, he also turns up the wit and the break-the-fourth wall wryness, which really helps us follow what’s going on.  There are many instances of John Gower filling in some expositional gaps in the story, and actors sadly scurrying off stage when he describes their death.  There is a recurring old-time stagecraft gimmick every time the plot takes us to sea that happens so often, it becomes a sight gag in and of itself.  There are many contemporary-reference ad libs that remind us we are firmly in the grasp of a story about THEN being told NOW.  Even one of the stricken heads in the Antioch scene sports reflecting sunglasses.  This is, if nothing else, a delightful slice of medieval bard-olotry, a wandering minstrel with his mandolin and his story filling the hours between dinner and bedtime.

 

If I have to confess an occasional “left behind” moment by Gower’s too-soft-for-my-old-ears voice and diction, I also have to confess an admiration for his engagement with the audience, with his musicality, and with his ability to whistle.  And to be honest, that was my only “issue” with this production of such an “issue-ridden” play.

 

Which means, my “appreciation” of this production was a lot easier than I anticipated.  It helps that the Tavern’s usual army of artists and artisans is working at peak ability, and their handling of Pericles is a perfect window for you to discover another  “back burner” region of Bard-ology.

 

So on your patience evermore attending,
New joy wait on you. Here my piece has ending.

 

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)   www.ShakespeareTavern.com    #Pericles 

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