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A tempest-tossed ‘Pericles’ arrives at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Director David H. Bell brings a Shakespearean depth to every musical he stages. He also unfailingly brings genuine musical energy to every Shakespeare play he helms. The latest example of this crossover can be found on the stage of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where “Pericles,” one of the Bard’s less frequently produced “romances” (“episodic adventure story” might be a more accurate descriptor), is now receiving an elaborate production that might have benefited from some judicious trimming.

‘PERICLES’

Recommended

When: Through Jan. 18

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand

Tickets: $48-$78

Info: (312) 595-5600; chicagoshakes.com

Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission

Although the play’s central character, Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Ben Carlson, a company member of Canada’s Stratford Festival who has played here several times), is “royalty,” his travails during the two decades chronicled in this drama turn him into something of an endlessly beleaguered Everyman. He is, both literally and figuratively, a man at sea — smart, decisive and decent, yet continually tempest-tossed and subjected to constant moral and physical challenges, both man-made and natural. Fittingly, the stage of the theater has been transformed into the deck of a ship (Scott Davis’ set is a beauty, animated by Aaron Rhyne’s fine projections of fire and water, and color-streaked by Nan Cibula-Jenkins’ costumes.)

As Pericles makes his way through an alternately wicked and warmly embracing world, he experiences the full spectrum of existence, moving from what appears to be a European city-state to more exotic lands with a bit of Arabian and Central Asian flavor (any political commentary is decidedly subtle). His journey is initially set in motion when he tries to win the hand of the daughter of the King of Antioch (Sean Fortunato), a despot he quickly realizes is involved in an incestuous relationship with that girl (Eliza Palasz).

This knowledge of taboo behavior puts Pericles’ life in danger (it is “time to flee when tyrants seem to kiss,” he notes) and forces him to head out to sea, leaving his kingdom in the hands of his trusted associate, Helicanus (the impressive Dion Johnstone, also a Stratford veteran). Among the stops Pericles makes is the city of Tarsus, where a famine is in full force. Its governor (Torrey Hanson) and his wife (Lia D. Mortensen, who will leave a cutting mark in later scenes) fear Pericles might conquer the place, but simply saves the starving population with corn. He will learn that no good deed goes unpunished.

Back at sea again, Pericles is caught in the first of two catastrophic storms that will alter his life. Saved by fishermen (lively turns by Ross Lehman, Derrick Trumbly and Marvin Quijada), he finally enjoys some good luck, winning a joust in the joyful, enlightened court of King Simonides of Pentapolis (Kevin Gudahl in most playful form), and falling madly in love with the king’s daughter, Thaisa (the enigmatic and beautiful Lisa Berry, yet another Canadian). He quickly marries Thaisa, who just as quickly becomes pregnant, and the new family boards a ship back to Tyre. But that ship is the victim of the story’s second violent storm, during which Pericles’ daughter, Marina (Cristina Panfilio) is born, but her mother dies and is most ceremoniously buried at sea. Distraught, Pericles places Marina in the care of a nurse, Lychorida (the ever superb Ora Jones), and sends the two to Tarsus, where he believes they will be welcomed. Filled with grief, he becomes a hermit.

As it happens, Thaisa is washed ashore in Ephesus and revived thanks to the magic of the healer, Cerimon (Lehman is splendid here), while the teenage Marina is abducted by pirates and sold to a brothel (with Jones as the madam), where she obsessively defends her virginity. Suffice it to say Pericles and his family are miraculously restored to happiness.

The themes of the play are many and varied: The full spectrum of leadership styles; the relationship between fathers and daughters (a recurrent theme in Shakespeare’s plays); the ubiquity of corruption and evil and the counterbalancing forces of goodness. Carlson is an unaffected actor who can make Shakespeare’s language feel natural, but more middle aged than youthful in bearing, he is not ideally suited to this role.

The production’s most galvanic scenes are at Simonides’ court, where the knights (Eric Parks, Brian Grey, Ryan Hallahan, Wesley Truman Daniel and Trumbly) engage in combat, as well as a wildly gymnastic pole dance. (Ethan Deppe’s musical direction of the show is first-rate throughout, and there is fearsome drumming by percussionists Jed Feder and Dan Toot.)

Though epic in its realization here, and clear and fluid in its storytelling, you might well conclude there is a reason why “Pericles” is not among Shakespeare’s most popular plays. It is simply a voyage with far too many ports of call.