Sunday, May 12, 2013

A post-mortem on Pericles: lost and found at sea

Paula Plum gets into the swing of things in Pericles.  Photos: J. Stratton McCrady

I was late getting to the Actors' Shakespeare Project's Pericles (which closed this weekend), but honestly, I wasn't in too much of a rush. This troupe has found their audience, certainly - and good for them (I mean that); but I don't think they have too much to say about the Bard that they haven't said already - and what they have said so far hasn't limned his depths. Their ensemble always offers a few striking performances (but never quite a whole play's worth), and certainly there's a sense of literate smarts about the troupe as a whole. But their productions usually misfire one way or another - certainly they never come together with the resonance that great Shakespeare achieves. 

This is the result of subtle, ingrown issues. The troupe's penchant for casting against type often costs them, and they still betray an inability to fully identify with the Bard's characters and tropes in their historical context, while forgetting their own patronizing, postmodern-collegiate frame. Thus they've almost proven the opposite of what their founding was intended to demonstrate; ASP's light, rag-tag, self-aware, actor-driven theatre has proven just as variable and incomplete as the pretentious director-driven dreadnoughts that it was designed to challenge. In fact, ironically enough, they're most prone to being led down the primrose path to artistic downfall by the wackiest, wildest directorial conceits. (So I guess now we know neither approach works, and that somehow they often end up in the same place.)

Well, so it goes. The trouble is that Boston seems to have given ASP credit for conquering the Bard anyway, and the rest of the theatrical establishment has been all too happy to hand Him over to them. And who's the wiser? Who has seen great Shakespeare in Boston? It's all but unheard of - certainly almost all the professors who jaw about it in town have rarely (or never) seen it; I can only think of one production in the past decade or so - Nicholas Martin's Love's Labour's Lost at the Huntington - that even came close to what the RSC or Canada's Stratford Festival can do at their best (and even those redoubts are beginning to flag in their ability, it seems to me; Shakespeare will go down, too, I imagine, as the general culture does).

But anyway, back to Pericles, Prince of Tyre (the play's full title) - which intrigues because it is so important in the canon while being a strange jumble of a play. Much of it probably isn't by Shakespeare, in fact; these days the latest software tells us that the first two acts (or more) may be by one George Wilkins (who published his own account of the legend prior to the play's quarto edition; it didn't make it into the First Folio).

Now to many observers, the mixed (or contested) authorship of the play somehow makes it of lesser artistic interest than the rest of the canon. But to my mind, the reverse is actually true. Indeed, Pericles fascinates me precisely because, like Timon of Athens, it seems half-finished, so seeing it is like viewing a cross-section cut out of the Bard's work process.

But let's back up a bit and ponder the whole Shakespearean authorship question. No, not that authorship question - the Earl-of-Oxford boondoggle is an utter waste of time. I mean the question of what Shakespearean "authorship" actually means - for I certainly don't think Shakespeare was an author in the Romantic sense of being the "onlie begetter" of his plays, the lone genius who forged our conscience in the smithy of his soul. Not that educated people quite believe that; even schoolboys know the Bard borrowed his plots - but few seem to grasp that this makes Shakespeare something of a critic of his own raw material, a re-shaper and re-caster rather than, well, an "original," for lack of a better word.  Indeed, you could argue (to paraphrase a famous quip about musicals) that a Shakespearean text isn't written - it's re-written.

Hence the uncanny depth of much of the canon - it reflects a genius analyzing extant cultural material rather than heaving it up fresh from his own subconscious. It's all a rewrite, a polish, an enhancement. And thus the peculiar position of Pericles: in its first two acts, the  urtext is bare, or at best only slightly re-worked, sticking out of the script like a bone. Indeed, you can almost feel the script "becoming" Shakespeare as it shifts gears in its third act.

More intriguing, still - Pericles, for all its flaws, represents a major pivot in the canon (and thus a fulcrum in Western literature). In fact Wilkins' scrappy potboiler re-directed the energies of the West's greatest genius into a radical new genre (the romance) which would culminate in his final masterpiece, The Tempest. We can even find among the lines of Pericles the thematic kernel of this final phase expressed in a nutshell: "Did you not name a tempest/a birth and a death?" the resurrected Thaisa begs of her husband in the ultimate scene, unaware she's making a trenchant artistic forecast. In formal and historical terms, Pericles thus looms over many another more fully realized Shakespeare play.

But why did George Wilkins' Prince of Tyre capture the imagination of the Bard?  Part of its appeal perhaps lay in its timing: Shakespeare began working on Pericles just as the birth of a granddaughter no doubt inspired a sense of rapprochement with his semi-abandoned wife and family. But as Celia comments in As You Like It, "There is more in it." I have little doubt that as Shakespeare surveyed the "rough cut" of Pericles he began to perceive in it an amazing coincidence (rather like the many in the play itself): its cartoonish effects paralleled and even extended many of the deep themes that had been moving beneath the surface of his own oeuvre. Storms and shipwrecks, identities lost and found, families broken and healed, societies rejuvenated; twins and doubles and hints of magic; he had been trading in these tropes (in more sophisticated form) since The Comedy of Errors, that is for his entire artistic life.

Thus the challenge to any production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre: to suggest in its crude, tempest-tost action what Shakespeare saw there, even though he wouldn't develop his vision fully until The Winter's Tale and The Tempest.

And it must be admitted that while ASP attempted to pick up this gauntlet, it often fumbled the move.

Omar Robinson, Johnny Lee Davenport, and Johnnie McQuarley ham it up as pirates of the Caribbean.

But first the good news: the show basically looked and felt as Pericles should - there were no disastrous high concepts mucking things up as there were in some recent ASP outings. The ocean was central to set designer Dahlia Al-Habieli's rendering, which is exactly right, as Marina, the daughter who reclaims her father from living death, is both born at sea and literally named for it (she is the sea).  Deb Sullivan's lighting was likewise evocative, but alas, costume designer Molly Trainer drew her sartorial choices from the shores of the American colonies, which only recalled the sexual repressions of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible rather than the pagan fires that lit the original myth.  Too bad, but this misstep wasn't fatal (and might have proved fruitful if Al-Habieli had come up with some Greek-revival architecture for the climax at Diana's temple, but the production eschewed the pageant-like elements of the finale - Diana herself never appeared in a masque-like vision, for instance, another small error).

Even more artistic wobbles I'm afraid dominated the first two "Wilkins" acts. The opening presentation of incest (Pericles discovers his intended bride has already been bedded by her father) had little threatening force, and director Allyn Burrows played the ensuing pursuit of his hero largely for laughs - as many a misguided production does, even though stage directions such as "Enter Pericles, wet" clearly indicate that rebirth is the business at hand.  Real evil is afoot in the action, too (as well as genuine good), but all this seemed lost in broader-than-broad antics from the likes of Omar Robinson, Johnny Lee Davenport, and Johnnie McQuarley (above), who are all capable of far more subtlety (indeed Davenport is a tragic talent that ASP seems, for unknown reasons, to refuse to tap). Playing against the slapstick, alas, Jesse Hinson was merely a hunky blank as Pericles, and as his wife Thaisa (whom Pericles wins, then loses, then finds again), Kathryn Lynch was hampered by her Hester Prynne get-up, while the usually reliable Michael Forden Walker looked lost as her father, the benevolent king Simonides.  So there wasn't much going on in the first half, even as Paula Plum wandered through now and then, doing her familiar wise-woman thang as Gower, a narrative host inherited from Wilkins.

Still, the production did move up-hill. Burrows staged the central tempest imaginatively, and Plum brought unexpected depth to Ceremon, the magician who revives the drowned Thaisa.  And while Elizabeth Rimar made Marina rather a pill (despite the fact that she's repeatedly described as radiant), her own misadventures grew more absorbing, as Bobbie Steinbach lit up their central episode with a saucily knowing take on the Bawd who imprisons her in a brothel (alas, Gabriel Kuttner wasn't much more threatening as her henchman, the beastly Boult, than he had been as the silkily perverse Antiochus in the first act).  Basically, Burrows began to achieve something like the right atmosphere as Shakespeare's hand grew more apparent in the text: Hinson put over Pericles' desperate alienation from his tragedy, and by the reunion at the finale, something of the music of the spheres had indeed begun to echo onstage.

You could argue, of course, that these achievements were too little, and came too late.  I was somehow encouraged by the production, though.  Its sometime successes were real, and what's more, they were genuinely Shakespearean - which alas, is not always the case at ASP.  Here's to more like them in the future.

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