It is curious that D.C.’s 17-year-old Shakespeare Theater has never produced the Bard’s epic “Pericles.” Perhaps it has been waiting for director Mary Zimmerman to come along. If so, it was a wise move, since she has an absolute field day with this lavish, calamity-filled voyage that stirs every emotion.
Zimmerman is clearly undaunted by the obstacles that in modern times have relegated “Pericles” to the back row of Shakespeare’s canon: the sweeping and difficult early acts (which it’s assumed the Bard didn’t write); the pronounced lack of character development. She toys with them by mounting the production as pure panto, festooning this fairy tale with miniature ships, balloons, pirates and countless bits of cleverness.
These touches begin immediately as the rhyming Greek chorus introductions of each act are plucked from the script and inserted as a closer, and then recited with a twist by one or more characters already onstage instead of the dour Gower. This playful technique typifies the lighthearted, irreverent approach to the adventure fable of King Pericles and his wildly gyrating fortunes.
Other flourishes are sprinkled throughout, from the tiny ships carried aloft on sticks above rippling waves to signify each Mediterranean voyage to the comical anachronisms tossed in as props — a rickety Victrola here, a dusty floor lamp there.
Yet above all, the production beats with an earnest soul that especially savors the tender moments of reunion among father, daughter and wife.
Zimmerman, who won a 2002 Tony for her production of “Metamorphoses,” is joined in her Shakespeare Theater debut by an enormously competent team. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes are just what we expect from an ST production — a blizzard of lavish and intricate attire sure to fetch plenty at a future fund-raising auction, leavened by the drab and plain. Especially enjoyable are the varied regional costumes worn by the knights vying for the hand of Thaisa.
Daniel Ostling’s stark set makes ample room for the epic and includes built-in drawers from which characters retrieve many of the play’s magical props. Ostling and Blumenfeld contrive to make each of the visited kingdoms a moveable feast for the eyes. The play also is infused with a delightful score from composer and sound designer Andre Pluess.
There’s not a weak link in this enormous cast. Among the standouts is Ryan Artzberger, who delivers an intensely sincere perf as the intrepid Pericles. Glenn Fleshler makes a delightful reprobate as the incestuous Antiochus, and Richard Pelzman’s gentle King Simonides is also right on target.
Among the women, Colleen Delaney is lovely and convincing as Thaisa, while Marguerite Stimpson is perfect as the supremely pure daughter Marina. Stimpson and Artzberger are intensely moving in one of the play’s most famous scenes, the act five reunion between father and daughter. Sarah Marshall is enjoyable as the woman whose powers bring Thaisa back to life.
Under a.d. Michael Kahn, the Shakespeare Theater consistently operates at a high level. This production of “Pericles” surely bolsters its aspirations to be recognized as the top interpreter of Shakespeare in the U.S.