Pericles, Folger Theatre

Fifteen years ago, Kenneth Branagh made a film of Shakespeare's Love's Labors Lost, using a simple axiom: if the thicket of text grew too thorny, turn it into an MGM-style musical.  Whatever you may think of the resulting film, it's an interesting technique to apply to Shakespeare.  Suspension of disbelief in the theatre works in a myriad of ways, and the rules of Shakespearean drama and musical theatre aren't incompatible.  Just like the Greeks knew that theatre needed spectacle and music and poetry and movement and high stakes, blending those forms together can serve to unify an entire production.

Midway through the first act of Joseph Haj's production of Pericles, which comes to the Folger from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I wondered to myself, "What is this, Pericles!: The Musical?" By the start of intermission, I realized that, in many way, that's exactly what Haj had created, with the help of Jack Herrick's music, lyrics, and musical direction.  Oh sure, it's still Shakespeare (this isn't the Porter/Spewack Kiss Me, Kate, after all), but Haj has found that if you apply just the right amount of music, disbelief can stretch just a little further than you might imagine. The plot of Pericles, with its shipwrecks and resurrections and reunions and godly visions, is full of the fantastical, so why not have fisherman break into harmonies, and have would-be lovers unknowingly join together in song?  When you alter the rulebook thus, the numerous plot twists that befall the Prince of Tyre hang together with a little more ease than I've seen before.

Haj's production is anchored by Wayne T. Carr's Pericles, with help from a strong ensemble and notably by Brooke Parks as Thaisa and Dionyza and Jennie Greenberry as Antiochus' Daughter and Marina.  Both actresses are given the chance to display their versatility with the productions' doubling as they each play multiple wives and daughters, respectively, and demonstrate their skill at creating characters that rise above those two types.  Carr's Pericles gives the audience both the charm and easy leadership of the young prince, as well as the king broken by too many griefs.

Jan Chambers's set combines a Turner-esque seascape across a versatile series of platforms and flats, able to transform at will with the help of Francesca Talenti's stunning video projections and Rui Rita's lighting design.  The combined effect, aided by Amadon Jaeger's sound design, is absolutely magical at times, sweeping us back and forth across the sea in Pericles' journey with theatrical ease.

A few seasons back, Arena Stage brought another production from the OSF, Bill Cain's Equivocation.   Cain's play looked at Shakespeare as a playwright late in his career, struggling to find a way to tell the truth in difficult times.  That Shakespeare found a way to peace within his own heart and family by writing stories of fathers and daughters, reconciliations and the hope of redemption.  This Pericles at the Folger is awash in music, love, and above all, hope.  As much as we love the grand tragedies and joyous comedies, the late romances of Shakespeare have always painted a different world for audiences, one where life is complicated and not always easily resolved.  These plays are often messy and can be difficult, but they are worth all the rehearsal rooms struggles to bring them to life on the stage.    Happy ending marriages or stages strewn in bodies are all well and good, but plays like the Folger's Pericles remind us that while life may be filled with trials and heartaches, loss and despair, hope is just as powerful a force, and rebirth and possibility are endings (or beginnings) with just as much worth.  Pericles plays at the Folger through December 20 before heading to Minneapolis and the Guthrie Theatre in the new year. Wherever you can catch this play, I hope that you do.


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