Shakespeare’s authorship of Pericles has long been subject to question—about whether the Bard had a collaborator and, if so, about who might have written what—but no one who sees Mary Zimmerman’s gorgeously inventive mounting of this meandering epic will have the slightest doubt about the authorship of the version playing at the Lansburgh Theater. The director has staked a claim to the work at least as solid as that of, say, George Wilkins, who is thought by some to have contributed the first two acts of dialogue before the Bard got involved.
Zimmerman’s contribution is far more substantial than any elisions and additions she may have made in the script. My new favorite line—the stage direction “Enter pirates”—has probably never been spoken before this production, and the explosive laugh that greets its utterance at the Lansburgh offers one clue to Zimmerman’s method. She is as much a demystifier as she is a stage magician, anxious to have audiences engage with a script as active participants, not merely as observers. Not for nothing do her characters peer straight out into the audience when addressing the gods. Their onstage efforts amount to supplications; their greatest desire is that we be moved and entertained.
Pericles is the tale of the young Prince of Tyre (Ryan Artzberger) forced to wander the ancient world after he solves a riddle exposing royal incest. The prince’s odyssey takes him to many kingdoms and involves all the conventional staples of the picaresque genre—storms at sea, famines, brothels, jousts, princesses, sorcerers, knights, virgins, betrayals, births, and deaths—as well as a miraculous resurrection and one of the most touching reunion scenes in all of Shakespeare. It is, in short, a treasure trove of incident—and a royal pain to stage.
The script uses a narrator named Gower to brush in plot, describe disparate locales, and exhort the audience to “take your imagination from bourn to bourn, region to region.” Zimmerman’s imagination being of an all-encompassing sort, she dispenses with Gower and most of his speeches, using the time she gains to amplify the script’s dumb shows by sailing Pericles’ diminutive ships across oceans of blue silk, conjuring wheat fields from thin air, and finding ways for Greek gods to soar through windows and walk on water.
Her inspiration ranges from heart-stopping elegance (Goddess Diana, with antlers rising from her shoulder blades, dusting the stage with showers of sparkling silver) to bawdy-house shenanigans (a princess/prostitute innocent enough to send her randier-than-thou clients scampering for the nearest church) to fairy-tale silliness that wouldn’t be out of place in a kiddie show. If a scene calls for five knights a-wooing, count on this director to make them a posing Spanish conquistador, a burping Viking, a showboating Arab, an African prince who sticks out his tongue, and a dissolute Arthurian jouster. And if a table must be set for a banquet, Zimmerman will stretch it from wing to wing and load it with a harvest bountiful enough to stop a ravenous horde dead in their tracks.
She does all this on a huge stage that designer Daniel Ostling has dressed with little more than double doors topped by a balcony, a couple of extremely tall windows, and a phalanx of drawers from which performers can retrieve everything from books to brigands to a perfectly persuasive beach—a large tawny canvas topped with three bucketfuls of sand. Costumer Mara Blumenfeld delineates whole nations with shifts in décolletage and waistline, and T.J. Gerckens lights the characters from angles that produce ominous shadows one minute, interior glows the next.
Though the production is often breath-catchingly beautiful, theatrical magic is not quite omnipresent. The evening gets off to a slowish start, relying more on stage pictures than on personalities or even plot twists to hold your attention. In fairness, the play’s characters are written as two-dimensional creatures who interact with Pericles and then disappear the moment he heads off for fresh points unknown. Still, shortly after intermission, when the Prince of Tyre tosses his young wife’s casket into a sea that enfolds it in a single gulp, emotions have been engaged firmly enough at the Lansburgh that the sounds of sniffling can be heard throughout the auditorium. And it would take an unrepentant curmudgeon not to be moved by the revelations and reunions in the show’s last half-hour.
Even minor players end up making substantial impressions—Richard Pelzman as a king who goes all giddy when his daughter falls for Pericles, Sarah Marshall as a science-minded priestess who can sense when a corpse is ripe for resurrection, Michelle Shupe as a startlingly murderous queen, Naomi Jacobson as a hilariously belligerent bawd, and Nathan Blew as a sensitive governor with a heart fit for a princess bride. All have just a few moments to grab attention, and all do. The principals, with more time to find nuances in their characters, are all pretty terrific. Artzberger risks seeming bland at the outset, but the payoff is big laughs when his Pericles is most artless, and he manages a devastating reunion scene with Marguerite Stimpson, who exhibits a melting sweetness as his guileless daughter. Colleen Delany is also lovely as the hero’s wife, who rises first from the dead, then from her grief. There really isn’t a weak link in the cast.
Nor is there a chink in the design team the director has brought with her—a sort of backstage rep company that’s worked frequently with Zimmerman on other projects—which unleashes a few trademark flourishes for the Shakespeare Theatre. The gorgeous wheat-field-in-boxes effect that produces gasps in Pericles’ second half, for instance, also graced Berkeley Rep’s mounting of the director’s The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Zimmerman’s ability to stage the unstageable has won her a MacArthur fellowship, a Tony Award (for Metamorphoses, in which she stirred up dramatic tempests in a 30-foot wading pool), and international kudos. Pericles marks her first work here in Washington, and it’s a pretty exhilarating introduction.
Renewal is both the subject and the subtext of the African Continuum Theatre Company’s sharply etched Two Trains Running. August Wilson’s anecdotal drama—the ’60s segment in his nearly completed decalogue about the African-American experience—is set in a Pittsburgh diner that’s about to be urban-renewed out of existence. The year is 1969, and though the rioting that blighted many inner cities after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X is barely alluded to, it is ever-present as background, inflecting the attitudes of all the diner’s denizens.
Also of the audience—it’s hard to know whether to credit this production’s considerable resonance to Jennifer L. Nelson’s briskly effective staging or to the fact that Two Trains Running is ACTCo’s swan song at the Kennedy Center before the troupe moves permanently to a Northeast neighborhood that’s still recovering from those very riots. H Street NE was one of the flashpoints in the city’s violent reaction to the King assassination—another being 14th Street NW, which became a hotbed of theatrical activity within a half-decade of being abandoned by the white business community. And if it has taken Northeast’s commercial district more than three decades to bounce back, ACTCo’s new home in the Atlas Performing Arts Center (just a block from the year-old H Street Playhouse) should help it do so with theatrical flair.
Nelson and her scrappy company are certainly bidding the KenCen farewell with a crowd-pleaser. Two Trains Running may be longer on character than on plot, but in ACTCo’s mounting, the laughs come early and often, the situations crackle with tension, and if there’s more than a whiff of melodrama in the show’s denouement, well, Wilson designed it that way.
The evening centers on the owner of the warm, somewhat dilapidated eatery that serves as its setting. Memphis (Michael Anthony Williams) has no intention of quietly accepting the city’s pittance for his establishment, nor of letting the proprietor of the funeral home across the street (Randall Shepperd) be the only black man to profit from the neighborhood’s turnover. Hangers-on include a volatile ex-con (KenYatta Rogers) who was introduced to notions of black power while in the pen, a slow-moving waitress (Deidra LaWan Starnes) with self-inflicted scars on both her legs and psyche, and slow-witted neighborhood eccentric Hambone (Addison Switzer), who for more than a decade has been telling anyone who’ll listen that the owner of a neighboring shop owes him a ham. Nelson’s efficient staging forges them into a persuasive, idiosyncratic community. The troupe’s budget limits the show’s look (designer Thomas F. Donahue settles for a garish painted backdrop behind his mostly naturalistic diner), but no Wilson production will ever rise or fall on anything but the play’s language, and the performers never fail to give the playwright’s rhythms their due.CP