Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 10, $75-$85
There’s a reason why so many theater lovers, and even Shakespeare aficionados, have never seen or even read Pericles: It’s not a very good play. In addition, the general consensus among scholars is that it’s only one-third Shakespeare anyway: Most think pamphleteer and innkeeper George Wilkins, a friend of Shakespeare’s, wrote the first two acts and that Shakespeare penned the third. The play has never been performed on Broadway, has never been made into a film, and has been presented only once at the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park outdoor summer festival at the Delacorte, in 1974, with Mary Beth Hurt and Randall Duk Kim. (However, in the fall of 2014, the Public did take a trimmed-down version of Pericles on the road in its Mobile Shakespeare Unit.) Now award-winning British director Sir Trevor Nunn, who has brought us The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Arcadia, Copenhagen, and, yes, Cats, Les Misérables, and Starlight Express, is tackling Pericles for the first time, the thirty-fifth Shakespeare play he has directed. (He is planning on completing all thirty-seven from the first folio with upcoming productions of King John and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) In his first show initiated in the United States with an American cast, Nunn is directing a rousing version of Pericles at Theatre for a New Audience’s (TFANA) Polonsky Shakespeare Center, where it has been extended through April 10. The play is narrated by real-life fourteenth-century English poet John Gower (Raphael Nash Thompson), serving as a kind of one-man Greek chorus. Pericles (Christian Camargo), the prince of Tyre, has traveled to Antioch to solve a riddle that will win him the hand of the daughter (Sam Morales) of King Antiochus (Earl Baker Jr.); if he fails, he will be killed. Realizing that the riddle is about incest between the king and the princess and that he will be slain even if he gives the right answer, Pericles asks for more time, and the king grants him his request while also sending his henchman, Thaliard (Oberon K. A. Adjepong), to murder the prince. Pericles flees home, where his trusted adviser, Helicanus (Philip Casnoff), tells him he must leave at once, certain that King Antiochus will do anything to see him dead. And so Pericles sets out on a series of Odysseus-like adventures that include several shipwrecks as he marries Thaisa (Gia Crovatin), daughter of Simonides (John Rothman), the king of Pentapolis; has a daughter, Marina (played as a teenager by Lilly Englert), who is raised by Cleon (Will Swenson), the governor of Tarsus, and his wife, Dionizya (Nina Hellman); and mourns the passing of his wife, who dies in childbirth.
Nunn’s Pericles takes place on a relatively empty stage with minimal props; scenic designer Robert Jones’s backdrop features a ritualistic large circle that occasionally opens up to introduce characters and shine bright colors (or the sun or moon) onto the otherwise stark setting. PigPen Theatre Co. founding members Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi, and Dan Weschler are joined by musicians Haley Bennett, John Blevins, Philip Varricchio, and Jessica Wang to perform a medieval dumb show throughout the play (they are playing when the house opens, so arrive early to get right into the mood); the delightful period music is by Shaun Davey, who also composed the score for the 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Pericles, during Nunn’s stint as artistic director of the RSC. Camargo (Dexter, The Hurt Locker), who has previously played Coriolanus and won an Obie as Hamlet at TFANA, is at first forthright as Pericles, then heartbreaking as the prince’s life takes dark turn after dark turn. Englert, who made her stage debut in Julie Taymor’s TFANA production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and followed that by playing Cordelia in Arin Arbus’s King Lear at TFANA, is strong and confident as Marina as she faces personal danger. The rest of the cast, which also includes John Keating, Zachary Infante, and Ian Lassiter as the three fishermen; Adjepong and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as brothel owners; Keating as Boult, their bawdy, gangly servant; Lassiter as their main customer, Lysimachus, governor of Mytilene; and Baker Jr. as Cerimon, the physician, are in full sync throughout the two-hour, forty-five-minute show, but it’s TFANA regular Constance Hoffman’s mind-blowing costumes that rule the day, a wild and thrilling mix of Greek classical, African, street-corner bum, and Goth, balancing glorious pinks, deep oranges, purples, and white with black, brown, and gray. Dionyza’s hat and the bawd’s outfit are unforgettable, drawing the audience’s attention away from the huge holes in the story; Nunn does some patching as well, fiddling around with the kitchen-sink-mishmash of a narrative by moving things around and adding elements of Wilkins’s novel The Painful Adventures of Pericles. It all might not make for a great play itself, but it is quite a grand entertainment, and about as good an introduction to this work as you’re likely to get. (On April 10, following the last performance of Pericles, the musicians from PigPen Theatre will give a concert that is free to TFANA season subscribers and anyone who purchased a ticket to see Pericles between March 29 and April 10; premium $125 tickets are also available, which come with various bonuses.)