“Pericles — Prince of Tyre,” with its tale of shipwrecks and family separations, is kin to “The Tempest,” which the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival will offer as a companion piece later this season. A romantic comedy spiced with incest, prostitution, kidnapping, combat and ultimately a fairy-tale family reunion, the play would seem to have everything. But it’s rather a big yawn before the passion really takes hold.
The cumbersome first half, despite some decided visual allure, is all wordy exposition, and for the most part, poetically barren. (Only the last three acts are attributed to the Bard.) The sprawling odyssey of the noble young Prince and his exhaustive plight to reunite with his loved ones is a plodding journey. But something extraordinary happens after the intermission. The characters become colorful, amusing and interesting, and most pleasurably, Shakespeare’s words ring with poetic grace.
As the young, virile and impulsive Pericles, Thomas M. Hammond cuts a heroic figure. His noble good looks complement a calculated low-key performance. He is most affecting as the weathered and wizened older statesman in the concluding recognition scene with the daughter he believed to be dead.
Marina, long-lost daughter, kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel, is a fetching blend of innocence and savvy as acted by Agnes Tsangaridou. Mark Elliot Wilson is the licentious governor whose ardent advances are suppressed by the manipulative Marina. He speaks the language well, in marked contrast to some of his colleagues. As Gower, the 14th century English poet and the play’s wordy narrator, A. Benard Cummings comfortably ties up loose ends and connects the dots. He also doubles as the miraculous physician Cerimon, who revives Pericles’ near dead wife, Thaisa, a role nicely defined by Roxanna Hope.
There is a spirited comic perf by Sue Brady as a brothel manager. In sunglasses and summer bonnet, holding court in a beach chair, Brady offers a delightfully blowzy bow to Bette Midler. Andy Paterson’s lascivious bumbling procurer is also very funny.
Director Gabriel Barre has played a fanciful game with time in order to keep matters bright and persuasively fluid. The visual sensibility resonates boldly, with props including boom boxes, firearms and thermos jugs, and contrasting togs with footwear running the gamut from high heels and flip-flops to riding boots and sandals.
Except for the infectious Middle Eastern music, created by Andy Teirstein, one is never too sure of the Mediterranean landscape. Jennifer Paulson Lee’s choreography is an alluring visual plus.
An imaginative, but eclectic, economical set design by James Wolk, with a decided cosmic bias, serves the action dutifully. Cornstalks in silhouette suggest the deliverance from famine, which the noble Pericles provided to the starving survivors of the stricken Tarsus. Corny perhaps, but it’s in season and a freshly original touch.