by William Shakespeare
Featuring Wayne T. Carr, Brooke Parks, Jennie Greenberry, Jeffrey Blair Cornell, Michael J. Hume, and Armando Durán
Music by Jack Herrick
Directed by Gary Briggle
Presented by The Guthrie Theater
When his appointment was announced nearly a year ago, the Twin Cities theatre scene as a whole wondered what Joseph Haj would bring to the table as artistic director of the Guthrie Theater. When it was announced that he would be tackling Pericles in the middle of the season for his directorial debut, many were confused. After all, the production was an expansion of the version he did for PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (where he had just finished his term as artistic director) that was being co-presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Folger Theatre in Washington D.C. And now, after appearing in both of those other venues, how would it hold up in the massiveness of the Wurtele Thrust Stage? Well, wonder of wonders! This production of Pericles is exactly what we should be seeing from the Guthrie; a movingly lyrical, breathtakingly beautiful, emotionally satisfying production that also happens to be a hell of a fun for the audience anchored by some smart acting, a gorgeous production design, and a smart approach to one of the oddest plays in the Shakespearean oeuvre.
Taking place all over the Mediterranean, the play finds Pericles, the prince of Tyre (Wayne T. Carr) trying to woo the daughter of the King of Antioch (Jennie Greenberry), and after learning the dark secret between her and her father (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) flees for his life on the advice of his loyal lord Helicanus (Michael J. Hume) by taking to the seas. This last action might be considered ill advised, as over the next few years, he gets shipwrecked, falls in love and marries the princess Thaisa (Brooke Parks), loses her when she “dies” in childbirth in the middle of a storm, gives his daughter Marina (Ms. Greenberry again) to friends to look after who tell him that she’s “died,” and takes to the sea to live as a hermit; all while his daughter endures a similarly tricky fate of jealousy, kidnapping, sexual slavery, and more. Thankfully, love and reconciliation are the order of the day as everyone ends up reunited in the most magical of ways.
As a whole, the later plays of Shakespeare known as The Romances (which include this, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest) are tricky beasts for both performers and audiences alike due to the whiplash tonal changes in their scripts (and in the case of Pericles – which, in its day was one of Shakespeare’s biggest and most popular plays – it shares similar elements with The Winter’s Tale; to the point where as I was watching this production I started mixing up plot points between both plays – “Wait. I don’t remember a brothel here.” “So does the statue come to life to reveal that it’s really his dead wife?”). But from the first moment of this production on, it’s very clear that something about this odd little play of Shakespeare’s speaks to Mr. Haj’s artistic sensibilities. Rather than trying to smooth out the rough, contradictory edges and awkward tonal shifts of the play, he embraces them and pushes them to their logical – and entertaining – endpoints. For example, in this production, the character of the narrator Gower (which Shakespeare took the name from the medieval poet John Gower, whose Confessio Amantis was one of the key sources for the play’s story) has been imbued with a with a sly sense of humor that infects the devil-may-care antics of Pericles’ story.
Mr. Haj and his company of designers and performers (more on them in a moment) embrace the notion of this as a “romance” and play the piece as a boisterous travelogue that enhances the story’s emotional twists and turns and allows for some stunning moments on the Guthrie’s stage. When Pericles is presented with Antiochus’ riddle, all that happens is that his daughter turns upstage to reveal the riddle tattooed on her back. When Pericles is drowning in the sea, the stage is flooded with a blue piece of stage-wide silk that is shaken by the actors; Pericles pops in and out in a slit in the middle of the fabric. When he meets his future wife the princess Thaisa, the courtiers of her native Pentapolis are rendered like a Persian hippie commune. Aiding and abetting in the various moods created on stage is the score by composer Jack Herrick (best known for the band Red Clay Ramblers and co-composer for the score of the Tony-winning play Fool Moon). So intregal is Mr. Herrick’s score (which uses chunks of the play’s text verbatim as lyrics) to Mr. Haj’s production in setting the mood and underlining key moments (such as Pericles’ lullaby that he sings to his baby daughter Marina, which she then sings back to him at their reunion) that it could borderline be considered a musical. The net result of Mr. Haj’s work is that the production is an artistically complete production where every single element is unified in a true singular vision for the story being told.
It also happens to be a visually sumptuous production. This should not be news since the Guthrie has among the biggest production budgets and most skilled craftspeople in town, so we should expect the productions there to look fantastic. However, there have been times when the physical productions at the Guthrie have been pretty for pretty’s sake without any real connection to what is happening on stage. Mr. Haj and his design team (scenic designer Jan Chambers, costume designer Raquel Barreto, lighting designer Rui Rita, sound designer Amadon Jaeger, and video designer Francesca Talenti) have worked in concert to create a world that is not only beautiful to look at (at intermission I kept saying “It’s so pretty!!” over and over), but accentuates Mr. Haj’s conception of the play. From the second the house lights fade out into a gorgeous field of stars before the story begins, we the audience are taken into a fully realized world that circles all around the Mediterranean with all of the various courts, storms, and natural disasters in tact. If there were two only two problems that I could see in this otherwise gorgeous production. The first was that the musicians led by multi-instrumentalist Darcy Danielson were tucked away so far upstage left that they were blocked from the right side of the house. Additionally there were some sound and balance issues at the performance I witnessed, and my guess is that it can be chalked up to opening weekend issues.
Of course with a production as kaleidoscopic as this, you need an ensemble that can handle the multiple tasks and characters this production demands, and while I could rightfully question the lack of local talent onstage for his debut production, Mr. Haj has cast the play admirably and gotten some thrilling ensemble work from his fourteen-member cast who all play multiple parts. While I would have loved a little more regal gravitas from him, Wayne T. Carr’s more romantic take on the title role plays into Mr. Haj’s vision of this story as an adult fairy tale. Far from being a criticism, this allows Mr. Carr to easily get the audience on his side as he brings an unbridled sense of joyous adventure to the role, even as the cruel seas of fate keep beating him up again and again, and gives him the room to make the character’s sorrow later in the piece palpable and heartbreaking. That said, while Mr. Carr’s dashing take on the title character gives wings to play’s first half, Jennie Greenberry’s grounded take on his daughter Marina serves to anchor the play’s tricky second half. Enduring everything from treacherous step-mothers, to murderers, to pirates, to brothels, to lecherous princes, and more, Ms. Greenberry makes clear both Marina’s innate goodness and hard-won maturity and turns the reunion with her father near the end of the play into one of the most soaring moments of the show. Other standouts in the show include Armando Durán’s commanding and wickedly knowing take on Gowler (and turns what is the biggest WTF moment in the script into one of the production’s funniest moments), Brooke Parks’ impressive double turn as both Pericles’ beloved Thaisa and Marina’s evil caretaker Dionyza (and her on-stage chemistry with Mr. Carr is off the charts and turns their meet-cute scenes in the first half, and their reunion in the second half, into something truly special), Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s hilariously hippie-dippie take on Thaisa’s beloved father Simonides, and Michael J. Hume for his work as our hero’s loyal advisor Helicanus and then for his uproarious performance as the madame Bawd (in gloriously tacky drag).
Like his two immediate predecessors in this job before him (that would be Garland Wright with Richard III and Joe Dowling with A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Joseph Haj chose to start his tenure at the Guthrie Theater by turning to Shakespeare; not only in a nod to Sir Tyrone Guthrie’s legacy for building a classical repertory company in Minneapolis, but also a chance to work on material that allows more room for directorial stamps. And in Pericles, Mr. Haj has created something truly extraordinary; a swooning romantic, emotionally generous, rolicking adventure that is a dazzling theatrical experience that also happens to be utter joy to watch. If this is the kind of theatre that we are to expect under Mr. Haj’s tenure as artistic director, then this is going to be a very exciting chapter in the Guthrie’s history.
The Guthrie Theater’s production of Pericles runs till February 21; with performances Tuesdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 7pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1pm. All performances take place at the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, located at 818 S 2nd St in Minneapolis. Tickets are $29-74 and can be purchased in person at the Guthrie’s box office or on their site.
Photo Credits: Jenny Graham