Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre could be a director’s nightmare. More like an action-adventure movie than a play at times, it features dozens of characters, several perilous sea voyages, too many kingdoms to count, two competitions for a princess’s hand in marriage, raging storms, assassins, incest, love, loss, one goddess, and a brothel. Oh, and pirates.
But director Erick Tucker took the myriad challenges in one of the Bard’s lesser-performed works and turned them into a spectacular, jaw dropping, hilarious opportunity. With a nimble company of only ten actors, he injects a hearty dose of vaudeville into the dizzying, sometimes uneven story of the extremely unlucky Prince of Tyre. The result is like the Reduced Shakespeare Company meets ComedySportz, meets the Muppet Show, and it’s onstage Up the Hill at American Players Theatre, through September 29th.
American Players Theatre has done concept productions before, setting Shakespeare in different eras (such as last season’s King Lear set in present day, and Much Ado About Nothing set during the Spanish American War) experimenting with cartoonish, otherworldly costume designs (from a long ago production of Comedy of Errors to this season’s Midsummer Night’s Dream); and they have done “boutique” versions of larger Shakespeare plays, stripped down to their essential cast (most recently, the Antony and Cleopatra in 2013 with just seven actors). But APT audiences have never seen anything quite like this.
On a stage known for beautiful costume dramas, it was almost shocking to see familiar faces from the APT company jumping out of a steamer trunk in plain clothes one after another — some in yoga pants and t-shirts, others in jeans. As a consolation for the audience, one other figure seemed equally confused; an older version of Pericles himself (played with depth and bewilderment by Jim Ridge). He wandered around the stage — which turned out to be a literal stage —while a group of actors presented the story of his early life, surrounded by set pieces stashed in the wings, racks of costumes, ladders, fans, stage lights, and a microphone (!) which were all used to great effect as the play within a play unfolded.
To help the audience keep track of the countries that young Pericles is tempest-tossed between, Tucker has given each locale a ridiculous and indelible theme; one looks and sounds like a Texas ranch in the 1940s, one has the trappings of a royal English polo match. The brothel where Pericles’s daughter Marina is held is set in the groovy Haight Ashbury scene of the late ‘60s. A rocky shore where Pericles lands after a shipwreck is inhabited by men with Scottish brogues, in the yellow rain slickers of the Gorton Fisherman. The comic possibilities multiply as actors ad-lib, add in modern references, and generally clown around.
This is great news for audiences, who were laughing hysterically on opening night. It is difficult for the actor playing the young Pericles (Juan Rivera Lebron), who has to do a lot of the heavy lifting in setting the scenes and narrating his journey. He is consistently upstaged by the whirlwind of his castmates’ creativity.
Many scholars now believe that the first half of Pericles — the wacky summer blockbuster portion—was the work of another writer; George Wilkins, and that Shakespeare wrote the more emotionally intense, more poetic second half. Based solely on this production, I would agree wholeheartedly with those learned critics. After intermission the tone and depth of the play change drastically and Shakespeare’s characteristically elegant phrasing resurfaces. The play morphs from a slapstick free-for-all to a compelling story of a family torn apart and then reunited.
Taking his place in the action, Ridge’s older Pericles physically sags under the weight of his misfortune and wallows in an underground room rather than rule his kingdom. Meanwhile, his pure, chaste, and clever daughter Marina (a luminous Cristina Panfilio) offers such an eloquent defense of virginity that her customers at the brothel leave sober and unsatisfied. Both actors give performances of such intense, raw honesty that it’s hard to remember why the play seemed so funny an hour earlier. Their moment of recognition and reconciliation is simply sublime.
Of course there are a few more chuckles after the deus ex machina is delivered by a goddess who looks like a Christmas tree topper, complete with enormous electric halo. Taken together, this Pericles is surprising and delightful, moving and witty, and awash with exceptional creativity from the director and cast.
As the summer wanes and this APT season draws to a close, I will cherish the memories of Marcus Truschinski’s trench coat-wearing assassin, Tracy Michelle Arnold’s nautical pose as a ship’s figurehead, Jim Ridge’s nightgown-clad bawd, and Andrea San Miguel’s epic spit take.