This production conceived by: Mark Wing-Davey with Jim Calder
Produced by: Berkeley Rep
Featuring: David Barlow, Anita Carey, James Carpenter, Jessica Kitchens, Rami Margron, James Patrick Nelson, Annapurna Sriram, Evan Zes
Directed by: Mark Wing-Davey
Music by: Marc Gwinn
Band: Marc Gwinn, Jessica Ivry and Jeff Holland
When: April 12-May 26, 2013
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, California
Tickets: $29-$77 (subject to change; discounts available). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.
Read Robert Hurwitt's review at sfgate.com.
Read Karen D'Souza's review in The Mercury News.
One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare is that theatrical troupes can get away with almost any goofy thing with the plays, as long as it serves somehow to connect with the audience.
Berkeley Rep started with a goofy thing for the opening of William Shakespeare's "Pericles, Prince of Tyre": Getting the audience to sing a round, with these lyrics: "Susan sits in 19A; Joachin came here all alone; exits are here, and here, and here, and here; please turn off your mobile phone."
Silly? Sure. But, may it please the court, in Shakespeare's day, the groundlings were probably entertained by jugglers and flame eaters before the show began. Also, the exercise was led by Marc Gwinn, who composed the completely brilliant score for this production and was one of the musicians, along with Jeff Holland and Jessica Ivry. And, finally, The Thrust Stage auditorium was crowded with a lot of very talented Bay Area actors and performers -- along with the board members, critics and, you know, theater buffs -- so the singing was pretty good.
Among some of the other goofy things in this uneven but ultimately satisfying production: Elevated coffins are opened to show the heads of would-be suitors of the daughter of Antiochus, and the heads are ... lettuce. One lettuce head falls to the stage, where a janitor's scoop waits for it. When Pericles must do battle with other knights to win the hand of Thaïsa, one of other suitors he must defeat is the Dark Knight himself, Batman.
At its best, all of this malarkey helps us get to the meaning of the story, which in this case is the tale of Pericles, who is caught between big trouble and bigger trouble when Antiochus tells him he can wed the daughter of Antiochus (sorry, that's her full name) if he solves a puzzle. If he doesn't solve it, he dies. Pericles figures out the puzzle quickly: It means that Antiochus is guilty of incest with said daughter. Pericles realizes that either way he answers, his head will soon be among the cabbages, so he talks his way into a 40-day reprieve. And exits the nation.
He runs off to sea; he lands in another city/nation and saves the people with his shipment of corn (I loved the device by which corn is delivered on stage, hats off to scenic designers Peter Ksander & Douglas Stein), but then he is caught in a bad storm and his ship sinks. Washed up on the beach, he is saved by a fisherman, then learns about the battle to win the hand of the aforementioned Thaïsa.
After winning her hand, he takes her to bed for stage-device comedy: The spring-mounted platform on which they couple throws them around to a silly extent. It could be sexy, but isn't; it's just goofy. But ... later, that same spring-mounted platform serves as the ship on which Pericles and Thaïsa are storm-tossed, as Thaïsa delivers their baby, to be named Marina.
In one scene, the spring-loaded platform is too goofy; in the next, it is brilliant. It adds up to a kind of poetry; the same spring-loaded platform on which Marina was conceived is the one that launches her into the world.
The storm scene was enhanced by Gower (sort of a one-woman Greek chorus) aiming a fire hose at the actors to spray them with water. It was dramatic and exciting -- right there on the Thrust Stage, indoors on Addison Street in Berkeley, a fire hose soaking the cast and stage. We don't see that every day in the theater.
Without recounting the rest of the story, I will sum up: Pericles and his family are presented with every sort of perversion and privation, with only their quick wits and unshakeable morality to save them. And, after suffering like Job, eventually they do get their happy ending. Scholars say "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" was very popular in Shakespeare's time.
This production was conceived by Mark Wing-Davey with Jim Calder, and directed by Wing-Davey, and it has its worthwhile moments, some of which I have mentioned.
And the music, by Gwinn, deserves another mention. Brilliant music, played with all sorts of instruments, from what looked like a modern lute to a cello and a piano and pretty much every sort of device that makes noise, including what looked like plastic hand-clappers. But the music, especially on the stringed instruments, very much carried the story and added both comedy and drama. Fabulous.
But the tough part about Shakespeare is the language. It is English as used by clever, educated people in the early 1600s, and much of really needs some scholarship -- as in reading a good, annotated edition of the play -- before seeing it performed.
But the real challenge isn't to the audience, it's to the actors. To take that strange old vocabulary and the rhythm of Shakespeare's writing and deliver it as an organic thing, as a living, breathing animal. To live in the skin of the language and bring it alive to the stage.
Most of this cast didn't quite succeed with that, on opening night, at least. A sprung rhythm here, a misplaced emphasis there. That takes us out of the willing suspension of disbelief and makes us say, "Oh, look: There's somebody trying to deliver some memorized Shakespeare."
But it's still Shakespeare. It's worth the effort to stage it, to act it, to see it. And this production has more charms than weaknesses.
Jessica Kitchens, as Thaïsa (and who doubled in another role or two) seemed most comfortable in her skin with her dialogue. Subtle but excellent. David Barlow, as Pericles (and some ensemble roles) wasn't quite as comfortable in delivering the language, but his performance was otherwise impressive, as he takes Pericles through his harrowing experiences. Annapurna Sriram certainly wasn't slowed by the language as she charged through her roles with abandon. Evan Zes ws perhaps over the top, but delivered.
And, once again, ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for the band: Marc Gwinn, Jeff Holland and Jessica Ivry. Brilliance.