Between Mary Zimmerman’s recent staging of “Pericles” for D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater and the Guthrie’s new production of same, we may be looking at a renaissance of sorts for the play Ben Jonson once dismissed as “a mouldy tale.” If the Guthrie can’t quite make a case for “Pericles” on merit, this loopy small-scale adaptation does at least proceed in a spirit of winning frivolity.
“Pericles” is Shakespeare’s “Ishtar” –a play so bad not even Shakespeare seems to have liked it. Scholars have long argued over how much of the play he actually wrote. One opinion holds that Shakespeare broadly outlined the plot, but left most of the writing to his hack flunkies–sort of like a high-concept Hollywood producer.
Careening drunkenly between tragedy and the lowest comedy, “Pericles” is, roughly, “The Odyssey” with ancillary subplots about incest and a surprisingly frank visit to a whorehouse. “King Lear” it’s not.
Joel Sass, the director of this production and a Twin Cities theater scene veteran, is known for his inventive, campy mise-en-scene. He creates some nice low-budget stage effects here. Roiling seas are, for instance, re-created with flapping blue sheets. Elsewhere, a knightly tournament becomes a stylized limbo contest.
Sass and scenic designer John Clark Donahue set their “Pericles” in a series of worlds drawn from pop culture flotsam. The realm of the evil, incestuous Antiochus is, for instance, something right out of “Arabian Nights,” with the decapitated heads of Antiochus’ victims strung on a tree like Christmas ornaments. Pentapolis, meanwhile, is a tropical paradise whose denizens speak with exaggerated Caribbean accents straight out of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”
This “Pericles” is a porridge of Shakespeare and old Hollywood adventure films. Douglas Fairbanks would not feel out of place here.
The acting also leans toward camp. Lee Mark Nelson’s Antiochus, with a henna-tattooed head and pointy black beard, recalls Ming the Merciless. And Cleon and Dionyza — played by Mark Nelson and Kate Eifrig, respectively — seem to have been inspired by Boris and Natasha of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” These two-dimensional caricatures actually suit “Pericles” nicely, since it’s basically a cartoon to begin with.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about this “Pericles” is that it’s a relatively modest staging of a famously sprawling and difficult play. Frequent changes in scenery are accomplished by deft shifts in Marcus Dilliard’s lighting. And only eight actors fill all the play’s roles. Amusingly, Ron Menzel, who plays the handsome, bland Pericles, also plays the master of the whorehouse, while Teria Birlon, who plays Pericles’ beautiful, equally bland wife, also plays the whorehouse’s mistress. In an irony Shakespeare would have appreciated, the whorehouse is just a debauched mirror image of Pericles’ palace.
Occasionally, it does feel as though Sass and company are throwing everything at the wall to see what will stick. There’s a bit of slapstick involving a turnip, for instance, which seems a bit much even for this gleeful burlesque. And the Bawd, a sassy madam with pendulous breasts, treads uncomfortably close to racial caricature. On balance, however, this camp makeover seems like just the thing for Shakespeare’s “mouldy tale.”