Joseph Haj turns Shakespeare’s episodic work ‘Pericles’ into a must see at Folger Theatre.
“Pericles” is being staged for the first time at Folger Theatre, and you have ask, why did it take so long? “Pericles” has had a controversial history over the question as to Shakespeare’s sole authorship, or if he had a cowriter with George Wilkins. That’s an argument best left to academics. It also has had problems because it treats incest and prostitution frankly.
That aside, under Joseph Haj’s direction, in a production he first staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and that he will take to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis after the Folger run, this “Pericles” is an experience not to be missed. He has staged a “Pericles” that defines the human condition in a complexity of pathos, humor and absurdity.
Haj has mixed Pericles’s unrelenting series of tragedies with moments of humor and has incorporated the music and lyrics created by Jack Herrick. Musicians at the side of the stage essentially function as a chorus singing the Pericles odyssey, and are there in support of Armando Duran, gray-haired Gower, the singing narrator, who appears from time-to-time as a guide through the episodic story. Dressed in beach comer white, Duran is a welcoming interlude helping to bring some structure to the peripatetic wanderings of Shakespeare’s seafaring saga.
Pericles, the prince of Tyre (Wayne T. Carr), is a man on a quest. He first sails off to marry a king’s daughter, only to be repulsed when he discovers the king and his daughter are having an incestuous relationship. He leaves to return home only to be told the king has sent an assassin to kill him and he sails off again.
There is a violent Mediterranean storm and he is washed on a beach wet and forlorn, where he is rescued by a singing and dancing trio of fishermen. Then his father’s shield is also washed ashore, battered and rusty. It becomes his talisman and he goes on to win a competition for the hand of Thaisa, (Brook Parks), another king’s daughter.
Parks makes the most of her role as the smitten princess who marries Pericles and while pregnant leaves with him to Tyre. Shakespeare does love tempests, so there is another storm that occurs as Thaisa is having a baby girl, appropriately named Marina. Thaisa apparently dies and is put in a sealed box and thrown overboard.
The storm under the scenic design of Jan Chambers and the projected video design of Francesca Talenti, with lighting of Rui Rita and the sound design of Amandon Jaeger, focuses on a swaying platform and a video of a roiling sea that fills the entire back of the stage. It is so intense that it provokes queasiness.
The melancholy Pericles once again sails away and leaves his daughter with a royal couple he trusts. Pericles could vie with Odysseus in his Perils of Pauline adventures.
By the time Marina is 14, she has become beautiful. Jennie Greenberry, who portrays Marine, is such an exotic beauty that it is easy to understand why the wife of the couple protecting her is concerned that she overshadows her daughter and she engages a retainer to kill her. But pirates appear in a wild, comical abduction and take her away to sell her highly valued virginity in a house of prostitution.
Bawd, the madam of the house (Michael J. Hume), a big man dressed by costume designer Raquel Barreto, in an outlandish cross-dress outfit complete with an overdeveloped bosom, has dreams of making big money for Marina’s virginity.
Things move rapidly at this point: Marina stands up to the sexual overtures, mom is not dead, the father she has never seen has become an emotional wreck, but as we expect all is well that ends well.
“Pericles” may be one of Shakespeare’s episodic works, but under Haj’s direction it is great theater.
“Pericles” continues through December 20 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street, SE. Tickets are $35-$75 and available at 202-544-7077 or online here.