April 6, 2016

Defeated by The Perils of "Pericles"

Pericles doesn't show up on the lists of Shakespeare's greatest hits. It didn't even make it into the First Folio. And most scholars say the Bard didn't actually write all of it anyway. This combination of negatives means that the play is only rarely done and so that alone might be reason to see the production that is running at Theatre for a New Audience's Polonsky Shakespeare Center through this weekend. 

But an even bigger draw has been the fact that this production was directed by Trevor Nunn, former artistic director of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, not to mention being the man who first staged Les Misérables and Cats. 

Now however, having seen this Pericles, all I can do is take some comfort in the fact that even geniuses like Shakespeare and near-ones like Nunn can turn out a flop.

The play, which follows the travails of an Odysseus-like prince named Pericles as he wanders through exotic locales and encounters one challenge after another, has all the attributes that mark those untidy mixtures of comedy and tragedy that we call Shakespeare's romances. 

So there are shipwrecks and storms, honorable virgins and hypocritical nobles, malevolent deeds and redemptive miracles. Even its playwright acknowledged that it's all too much and created a narrator who makes periodic appearances to recap the action.

Trying to do his part to keep the audience's attention, Nunn adds music (supplied by members of the Pigpen Theatre Co.) and spectacle (artful recreations of the shipwrecks, feats with real fire) and extravagant costumes (some of the outrageous hats deserve a show of their own). None of it worked for me but there were occasional murmurs of delight from other audience members.

The 22-member cast includes veteran actors like Philip Casnoff, Will Swenson and Christian Carmargo in the title role, looking like a '70s-era flower child and giving off the zoned-out aura of a recent convert to EST.  

They're joined by some notably less experienced players and at least one principal who has such a pronounced lisp that the meaning of those lines were lost. Luckily, I suppose, Pericles has only a little of the poetry we expect from a work of Shakespeare.  

Nunn, who's previously staged 33 of Shakespeare's 37 plays, has said he took on Pericles in part because he wants to complete the cycle and is already making plans for the remaining two (click here to read an interview with him). I suspect that only other completists will enjoy seeing what he's done with this one.

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