Literally and figuratively, Shakespeare’s Pericles is all over the place. Like a very leisurely travel package, it visits six different Mediterranean locations—Antioch! Pentapolis! Mytilene!—and ranges across more than 16 years of time. It has a tour guide—I mean a narrator—and frequent outbreaks of song, dance, and mime. It features a princess protected by a riddle, an assassin, a shipwreck, fishermen on a beach, a jousting tournament, a storm at sea, pirates, a bordello, a dream sequence, and more than one unexpected reunion. It has reminders of other Shakespearean works going all the way back to The Comedy of Errors and looking ahead to pieces he hadn’t written yet, such as The Winter’s Tale. And parts of it may not have been written by Shakespeare at all.
In short, Pericles is neither a history, a comedy, nor a tragedy. It’s a romance, the sort of thing where—to borrow a comment by William Congreve—“lofty Language, miraculous Contingencies and impossible Performances, elevate and surprise the Reader into a giddy Delight.” Congreve, determined to show that he lived in a no-nonsense age, went on to say that said reader will nonetheless “be very well convinced that ’tis all a lye,” and it must be admitted that Pericles can be a bit much for anyone who (as I am) is currently reading Don Quixote, a comprehensive takedown of romances. Yet Theatre for a New Audience is currently running, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in Brooklyn, a production of the play that pretty thoroughly knocks me out and bowls me over.
Director Trevor Nunn and his excellent team of collaborators have lavished attention on every aspect of this problematic but potent play, bringing it fully to life as a sort of beguiling bedtime story for adults. The text has been tinkered with—which is usually the case with Shakespeare anyway—because the surviving early editions are corrupt, and everything now makes sense, pretty much. The costumes (by Constance Hoffman) for the high and mighty are resplendent, those for the lowly are picturesquely ragged, and even the attire for the starving citizens of Tarsus looks somehow stylish. The production design (by Robert Jones) is dominated by an oculus with shutters at the back of the playing space, which suggests the great globe itself as well as the wheel of fortune, which casts down but also lifts up, and maybe even the synoptic, all-seeing eye of Fate.
Shaun Davey, who crafted atmospheric, enveloping music and songs in a wide range of styles, may have been asked to provide a few more cues than we really need; as in Richard Strauss’s operas, in which the smallest of gestures are sometimes given their musical counterpart, it’s possible to think “Get on with it” now and then, but never for long. If Christian Camargo, playing Pericles, looks a bit like a burned-out street hippie in a late section, when the prince has given up speaking or cutting his hair, well, that doesn’t last long either. Elsewhere he’s a model of resilience, even endearingly goofy for a moment in a dance. And Raphael Nash Thompson, as the narrator, may be the greatest attraction of the piece. Thompson’s benign, knowing, and sonorous presence makes him the very type of a storyteller and master of ceremonies. (There’s something Prospero-like about him in this role, and his bio tells me he was indeed in TFANA’s staging of The Tempest, which I didn’t see.)
This production gives us delights for the eye and ear, and there are all sorts of wondrous tones in Nunn’s staging. A fairy-tale-like sense of enchantment surrounds it, as befits the text, in which Pericles finds himself bowed but remains unbloodied. There are threats in this world, and there’s struggle, but it’s indirect, transmuted into the marvelous. Sometimes we hear double, to coin a phrase: in the dream sequence, the goddess Diana appears to tower within the oculus, a shadowy yet gleaming presence, and as she speaks to the sleeping Pericles, we also catch her words in song. The effect is almost uncanny, as if we too might be dreaming.
Those who sit near the back of the house and have age-battered ears, as I do, may lose a line here and there, but one must take such things as they come—as Pericles himself accepts what befalls him, not without complaint, but all along keeping the faith, rather like Job (or, if you prefer, like a proper 60s hippie). Cervantes would remind me to be wary, but one leaves this Pericles feeling buoyed, confident that things will all work out in the end.
The production runs through April 10. Its web page is here. A few weeks back, the New Yorker website posted an article by Cynthia Zarin on the play and this production, here; its vague claim that “until recently, [the play] was seldom staged” may be contradicted by the fact that Pericles has been making a comeback for decades now (which Zarin later nods to), but the article is illuminating on the challenges of the text.