Andrei Serban is by no means the first director to give Shakespeare’s late romance “Pericles” the full fairy-tale treatment. But in this American Repertory Theater production he does so with such pleasurable panache and style that the play springs to kaleidoscopic life. What’s even more admirable is the fact that the cast, guided by Serban and voice and speech coach Nancy Houfek, project the text with such clarity and meaning. Add the deeply human reality of Robert Sella’s Pericles and the burnished clarity of Yolanda Bavan’s Gower, the reborn poet who acts as the play’s narrator and as Shakespeare’s stand-in, and you have a “Pericles” that’s highly satisfying.
Serban has drawn on a vast number of influences while melding them into a seamless whole. A general list would include “Alice in Wonderland,” “Arabian Nights,” “Turandot,” English pantomime, commedia dell’arte, orientalism, Loie Fuller, Fellini and Ingmar Bergman — plus the inspiration of the Georgian film director Sergei Paradjanov, to whom the production is dedicated.
Serban has also incorporated filmed sequences, achieving a merger of filmed and live elements that’s technically flawless and adds to the luminous unfolding of the decidedly over-the-top plot, which includes incest, murder, pirates, a brothel and rebirths just for starters.
The production opens with three great gong strokes. White-clad figures then enter the mostly bare black stage, its one main prop being a gauzy pavilion to one side. A.R.T. senior actor Jeremy Geidt, as Pericles’ councilor Helicanus, announces the title and setting and the production’s magic begins.
The actual setting remains a black void as designer Dan Nutu’s video, Gabriel Berry’s hilarious-to-kinky costumes and Beverly Emmons’ chiaroscuro lighting provide most of the visual pleasures. Add a collage of music that ranges from Glassian minimalism to Satie to rock to Ravel’s “Bolero,” plus the insistent sound of the sea.
Periods are decidedly mixed, ranging from ancient Phoenician loincloths to contemporary tackiness for the brothel scenes.
The cast, a blend of Equity actors and non-Equity A.R.T. Institute students and local actors, works splendidly together, led by the youthful Sella and Bavan (who also plays the magician Cerimon). Among those who also make their mark are Geidt (who also plays a jolly fisherman in yellow boots), Thomas Derrah, Will LeBow and Mia Yoo and Pascale Armand.
Serban has also provided stylized movement that ranges from minimalist to near-gymnastic to all-out dance. Some of the performances do get slightly out of hand, such as Karen MacDonald’s broadly lustful, murderous governor’s wife, but they are minor blips in an otherwise elating production.