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Pericles, one of the lesser-known and less-frequently produced Shakespeare plays, doesn’t even feel especially Shakespearean. In fact, The Bard hasn’t historically been credited as the primary playwright; he’s believed to have only written the more mature and grounded third act. Instead, the play bears strong resemblance to a Greek epic, concerned as it is with a hero on his seafaring journey across the Mediterranean. Like The Odyssey, the story unfolds across several scenes in several locales, on journeys that last many years. The play shifts not just in time and place but also in theme—demanding, in quick succession, that its actors conjure comedy and tragedy, unbearable loss and joyful reunion. Joseph Haj’s production manages to turn what could easily be an erratically-paced play into a deeply satisfying, swashbuckling trip across the sea.
The reason for all of this sailing is almost inconsequential—Pericles (played with admirable range, from headstrong youth to world-wearied elder, by Wayne T. Carr) seeks the hand of the princess at Antioch. But the hero discovers, by interpreting a thinly-veiled riddle tattooed upon her back, that she already belongs to another man: her father. King Antiochus would rather have Pericles destroyed than risk that his publicly encrypted, incestuous secret be revealed. Pericles wisely flees.
This is how the story tends to unfold—less a princely hero’s quest than a series of flights from problem to problem and port to port, with fate playing the heaviest hand in our hero’s destiny. The most rewarding twist of fate arrives when a deadly confrontation is interrupted by one terrific, deus ex machina stage direction: ENTER PIRATES. After fleeing Antioch, luck finds Pericles happily washed up upon the shores of a kingdom where Simonides (Scott Ripley, who also plays the evil Antiochus) seeks to give away his daughter. Pericles proceeds through an awkward courtship with teenaged Thaisa (Brooke Parks) before—inevitably—fate parts them.
Haj makes sense of this hodgepodge with a clever bag of tricks, most notably Jan Chamber’s minimal stage and highly adaptable set. Moving panels painted with a black and white seascape (or maybe, in a pinch, misty mountains) are cunningly transformed by Francesca Talenti’s projections and some choice set pieces—making easy transitions from storm-rocked ship to holy temple to open ocean. This piece of trickery transforms what could be nauseatingly rapid scene shifts into a tolerable, cohesive whole. Haj also makes use of original music from Jack Herrick—ranging from romantic ballads to sea shanties—to transform the play into something approaching a musical, fleshing out what could otherwise be filler between pirate kidnappings and ship-destroying squalls.
Any play with such variation in pace and tone would run the risk of getting quickly bogged down, but these various tricks allow the production to highlight the remarkable growth of its characters: Both Pericles and his wife, Thaisa, grow from energetic, naive youths to haunted old souls, battered by loss (an opportunity that Parks seems especially eager to sink her teeth into, playing with panache Thaisa’s journey from sweetly awkward teen to abandoned, grieving queen, as well as the role of the icy, unmaternal Queen Dionyza). The end result is a play that deftly handles an astonishing array of childish adventure stories and grown-up drama, and comes up with a satisfying, cohesive whole.
201 East Capitol St. SE. $35–$75. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu.