Sunday, March 30, 2008 05:08 PM
On the Stage - Pericles
 by Fëanor

The other day, poppy and I went to see a preview performance of Pericles at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival. Neither of us had read the play before, and we didn't even know much about it except that it was rarely performed. Thankfully the program filled us in a bit more on the plot and history of the play. It's one of Shakespeare's later works and is considered a romance, rather than a history, tragedy, or comedy. Most scholars seem to agree that it was not written wholly by Shakespeare; the first two acts - which are considered inferior in quality - are attributed to someone else. The story is set in and around ancient Phoenicia, and its major concern is the life of a prince of that land: Pericles. It opens with Pericles showing up at Antioch to try to solve a riddle. If he does so successfully, he will win the hand of the beautiful daughter of the King; if he fails, he will be executed. He discovers the solution to the riddle immediately, but that solution reveals that the King is having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Disgusted, and justly afraid of what will happen to him if he says the answer aloud, he flees. He ends up in the city of Tarsus, which is beset by famine, and makes friends of the noble Cleon and his wife Dionyza by handing out food. He sets to sea again and is shipwrecked. Only he and his armor survive the wreck, and both wash up on the shores of Pentapolis. He puts the armor on and joins in a tourney to win the hand of another King's daughter, Thaisa. This time there's no incest or riddles, so Pericles gets married and gets his new wife pregnant and everything finally seems to be going his way. Then he gets a message saying he'd better return to Tyre in Phoenicia immediately if he wants to keep ruling there, so he grabs his wife and goes. A storm overtakes them at sea and his wife seems to die in childbirth. He embalms her in a casket and puts her overboard. The casket washes up on shore and Thaisa is brought back to life by a local healer. Believing Pericles and her daughter to be dead, Thaisa becomes a priestess at a temple of Diana. Pericles, meanwhile, leaves his daughter (named Marina) in the care of his old friends Cleon and Dionyza in Tarsus and heads home to Tyre. But Dionyza comes to hate Marina for overshadowing her own daughter in talent and beauty, and so sends an assassin to kill the girl. During the murder attempt, pirates arrive and kidnap the girl, only to sell her into prostitution. Marina keeps her virginity by talking every man who comes to her into taking up a life of virtue. She's ruining the brothel as a prostitute, so they rent her out as a tutor for young ladies instead.

Pericles shows up in Tarsus looking for Marina and is told by Cleon and Dionyza that she is dead. He resolves never to speak again, and goes wandering on the sea. To cheer him, a local governor sends Marina to him, and she and Pericles, after exchanging their sad stories, realize they are father and daughter. Then Diana appears to Perciles in a dream and tells him to seek out her temple. There he finds and is reunited with his wife, and there's a big group hug, and all the nasty people who are left die, and all the good people get married and live happily ever after.

It's a rather odd story, and it's told in a rather odd way. Shakespeare originally wrote it to be narrated by John Gower, the poet and contemporary of Chaucer who was the author of the story on which the play is based. In this production, Gower is replaced by an old-fashioned Greek chorus, all done up in robes and masks. Which is actually a nice touch. The problem in this case is not with the production, but - if I may be so bold - with the source material. No matter how you handle them, the narrative sections are just not really very good. There are way too many of them, and they seem to have been used as a clumsy way of filling in large gaps left in the story. In one or two cases, rather important plot events are handled via narration, instead of actually being acted out on the stage in the normal fashion.

Some of the story in general also feels a bit clumsy. In the opening section, the King of Antioch's riddle is actually not very hard, and its solution incriminates him. Which seems like poor planning. He kills those who get the riddle wrong, but when he realizes that Pericles has solved it, he resolves to kill him, as well. So... why does he bother even having a riddle at all? Why doesn't he just kill anybody who shows up wanting to marry his daughter, if that's what he's going to do anyway?

There isn't a lot of comedy in this play, but pretty much all of it comes out of the brothel scenes, and involves jokes about sexual slavery, prostitution, rape, and physical abuse. None of which is considered very funny anymore. These sequences are therefore less amusing than they are offensive and disturbing.

Pericles is also a melodrama, which is a genre I generally despise. Most of its major events take place thanks to chance or fate; most of the villains die at the hands of the Gods. To a modern mind, that feels like cheating. And the scene near the end during which Pericles finally meets his grown daughter and slowly realizes who she is, is dragged out to the point of being ridiculous and even faintly annoying.

All of which is just to say, this is a flawed play. A fact on which most scholars seem to agree. But that's not the only reason why the performance we saw wasn't very good. The production's staging, lighting, and costuming were actually generally quite creative and well done. As I've said before, I particularly liked the Greek chorus and their masks. But the director had chosen to have all of the narration sung, and to include a lot of other singing in the play besides, and it was painfully clear that none of the cast are professional singers. Also, the man playing Pericles is simply not right for the part. I've seen him used well in Philly Shakespeare Festival performances in the past - in the central role of The Taming of the Shrew - but he just doesn't have the chops to take on the rather complex role of the troubled Prince of Tyre. His performance even occasionally elicited unintentional laughter. I myself could hardly hold back some giggles when he came on stage in the latter part of the play wearing a ridiculously fake beard and moustache, which he then had to continuously press back onto his lip as it slowly began to peel off.

There were other slip-ups of this sort throughout the play as various cast members forgot their lines or dropped parts of their costumes. Of course, this was a preview performance by a local company, so I was willing to give them a bit of leeway. But ultimately it's just not a very good play. I think it might be possible to put on a decent production of Pericles, but it would be very hard. And this wasn't it.
Tagged (?): On the Stage (Not), Shakespeare (Not), Theater (Not)

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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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