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Pericles, directed by Bartlett Sher
Lost and Found and Lost Again
By Debra Hilborn

Pericles, Prince of Tyre
By William Shakespeare
Theatre for a New Audience at
BAM Harvey Theatre (closed)


Three-quarters of the way through Shakespeare's Pericles, the title character, suffering almost unto death with unspeakable agony over the loss of his wife and daughter, has a momentous reunion with the child he believed to be dead. It is a tender and joyous scene, filled with all the wonder and amazement of a man whose loved one has been resurrected, and who is experiencing with incredulousness his own awakening to life again as well. According to Gideon Lester, Associate Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater, there have been at least seven major productions of Pericles in various cities (including two in New York) within the past year and a half. Pericles--a story about restoration, about the retrieval of what seemed irrevocably lost (loved ones, happiness, innocence)--offers a kind of solace that many of us, perhaps especially in a city so intimate with bereavement, are yearning for. True to the play's themes, Theater for a New Audience's production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater creates a magical world in which the things we mourn the loss of are returned to us again.

Few would call Pericles an unequivocally good play; it has a somewhat unbalanced and ineffective structure. Most scholars believe that Shakespeare did not compose it in its entirety. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom tells us that George Wilkins--a "lowlife hack" and a "whoremonger"--was largely responsible for the beginning of the play, and posits that Shakespeare handed Wilkins the skeleton of a plot and sent him off to write the first two acts. This theory underscores popular critical opinion that the beginning of Pericles is far weaker than what follows, although Bloom remarks with perplexity that those first two acts, while plodding and "dreadfully expressed," still play well. Regardless of authorship, character development throughout the play is scant and it sorely lacks the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of a Hamlet or King Lear.

Recounting the plot is a bit like chasing down a runaway train. The 14th-century poet John Gower is brought in to narrate the tale, which begins with Pericles, Prince of Tyre, in the land of Antioch, where he discovers that the King has been committing incest with his beautiful daughter. Fearing that the King will kill him because of his knowledge, Pericles flees--first back to Tyre, and then, concerned about an attack from Antioch, off to adventure on the seas. After saving the kingdom of Tarsus from starvation, Pericles is shipwrecked in Pentapolis, where he shows up at a feast of the goodly King Simonides and marries his daughter Thaisa. But what the sea has given, it will take away again--Thaisa apparently dies giving birth on the way back to Tyre and her body is cast into the waters. Marina, his daughter, is left in Tarsus to be raised by their rulers, but the Queen, Dionyza, in a fairytale-like move, eventually plans to kill the young girl, whose constant outshining of her own daughter the Queen finds annoying. Fate steps in, and at the very moment Marina is to be slain, she is kidnapped by pirates and taken to be sold in a brothel in the kingdom of Mytilene. Through her virtuous cunning, Marina avoids being deflowered and is rescued instead by a rehabilitated customer, the Governor of Mytilene himself. Pericles, even more abject after hearing from Dionyza of his daughter's "death," finds her there by chance, and then in a dream is bidden to go to Ephesus, where he finds Thaisa at the altar of Diana, her casket having washed to shore fourteen years earlier with her still breathing inside. Phew!

Yet the strength of Pericles lies in its expansiveness and sense of adventure. In contrast to those French and Italian Renaissance playwrights whom we now think of as bound and suffocating within the stiff, unyielding strings of neoclassicism's corset, Shakespeare--always shamelessly unconcerned with the unities--here breathed even more deeply, and boldly carried the spectator to so many locations that Gower is compelled to assert: "By you being pardon'd, we commit no crime To use one language in each several clime." The result, perhaps compounded by the play's devil-may-care structure, is a sort of abandon that is invigorating. The panorama of Elizabethan drama is believed to have been in some ways a vestige of the medieval bible plays, which did not shrink from undertaking a dramatization of no less than the entire history of mankind. Another remnant of the medieval theater that finds its way to the Elizabethan stage is the platea, or undifferentiated playing space, in which the empty stage becomes quite literally anywhere the play says it to be. This convention is common in contemporary Shakespeare productions, but it is used to particularly excellent effect by director Bartlett Sher in his staging of Pericles.

Sher, along with set and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, does much with little, achieving a rich and evocative minimalism. A yellow curtain becomes a palace wall; lifted a few feet higher it is the wall of another structure in a land across the sea. Dangling shards of glass reflect the light and continually cast delicate shadows that evoke water. A long, thin band of blue fluorescent light suspended above the characters heads suggests the horizon, and also infuses the stage with an aquamarine glow. Devoid of traditional set pieces, the actors fill and demarcate the space with their bodies and voices. Four actors with large staffs sway rhythmically, evoking a ship. Pericles struggles to stand, and the actors' movements become more violent, finally breaking off and swirling away as the ship is wrecked. It's all simple, precise, and effective.

Often, Sher presents actions that are taking place in two separate places at once. The direction then becomes cinematic, like a split screen; the distance between characters is blurred and the space and time separating them appears irrelevant. Towards the end of the play, Thaisa is a constant presence upstage, lighting candles at the altar of Diana--each one increasing our anticipation of her reunion with Pericles. Along with the playful reflections of the prisms, this growing light in the background seems to be a steady, quiet harbinger of hope.

Sher also keeps his cast relatively small with ingenious multiple casting (Christopher McCann as both the corrupt father Antiochus and the older Pericles, Julyana Soelistyo as the Daughter of Antiochus and the virginal Marina, Tim Hopper as younger Pericles and the Governor of Mytilene, among others). These choices illuminate the mirroring of relationships that occurs within the play, securing a badly-needed foundation for the plot's lop-sided structure. The multiple casting also serves to reinforce the theme of restoration and the idea of Pericles as a medieval morality tale in which all things are set right in the end. Relationships become the measure against which the world is judged. Antiochus and his daughter, like Adam and Eve, set the world awry with their sin; but with the same actors later playing the suffering Pericles and the pious Marina, a rightful father/daughter relationship is restored. Enslaved in the brothel, Marina runs and clings helplessly to the Bawd (a comically mercenary Kristine Nielsen, who also plays the murderous Dionyza) for protection against another of the brothel's proprietors, who is intent on stealing the young girl's "maidenhead." When Marina later runs into her mother's arms in joyous reunion, and holds tightly in a similar fashion, another mirror effect is achieved. Debased relationships have been elevated and things are again how they were meant to be.

The highlight of the production is the climactic moment when Pericles recognizes Marina as his daughter. Within a strange and uneven play, it is a scene of unrivaled poignancy. In Christopher McCann's moving performance, recognition begins slowly; he thinks the gods are mocking him; he dares not believe such a tremendous miracle could be true. But as the facts are presented to him, his stricken, recumbent frame begins to stir and a life begins to breathe again in his limbs. He moves closer to Marina. But it is still too incredible, too unbelievable. Yet he is excited--perhaps, just perhaps, it could be true. Joy, giddiness, and sheer adrenaline take over. It is exhausting to watch, this coming to life again, and it makes perfect sense that once he is satisfied the young woman before him is indeed his daughter, he should, as Shakespeare wrote, hear a heavenly music and fall back into slumber.

For me, awaking from Theatre for a New Audience's Pericles was painful. Like awaking from a pleasant dream, I wanted to lie in bed and hold on to it for a little while longer. But eventually, one must throw back the covers and face the real world--a world in which what is lost most often simply remains so.


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