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Daniel Breaker is Pericles
(Photo © Samantha Moranville)
The summer months in NYC usually bring us a rash of bad Shakespeare productions but, happily, the Red Bull Theater Company's Pericles doesn't fall into that category.

Red Bull has chosen an ambitious project for its debut. Assembling a large cast that's comfortable with heightened language is difficult enough for any small theater, and Pericles throws a sprawling narrative into the mix: the title character, a young Prince of Tyre, falls in love with the beautiful Princess of Antioch but first must get past her incestuous father, Antiochus. When Pericles finds out their dirty little secret, Antiochus tries to kill our hero, who subsequently flees to poverty-stricken Tharsus. The play follows his life in hiding through marriage, childbirth, and old age; it's a journey that spans five countries, one shipwreck, and two fiery bouts of divine vengeance.

Some young companies would shy away from this intimidating text, but the Red Bull Theater Company attacks it with the aplomb of a toreador taming his beast. The troupe treats fantastical plot twists as opportunities for bold artistic expression rather than obstacles to be overcome. Director Jesse Berger employs an awesome range of devices -- from mime to shadow puppetry -- to get the story told and proves himself fluent in all of these theatrical languages. His adaptation treats the original material well but with an artist's eye for innovation.

Raphael Nash Thompson plays the friendly narrator Gower, and his commanding presence sets the production in motion. He strikes a bell at center stage and reads the epic tale from an illustrated storybook while the actors perform in the background. Each actor wears a mask in a nod to the Greek stage: the masks of Antiochus and his daughter are deformed to symbolize their ugly sins; Pericles's mask has sharp angles that represent his forthright virtue. It's a smart beginning that establishes a grand tone.

Daniel Breaker in Pericles
(Photo © Samantha Moranville)
The masks come off in the next scene as Berger finds different technique to tell the episodic story. The company's power of reinvention makes for a gripping shipwreck scene: The chorus waves an electric blue silk sheet above, behind, and around the principal characters who resist drowning in the watery abyss. Metal instruments offstage mimic the sounds of crashing waves while ropes representing powerful tides swing Pericles around the stage. When the mayhem ends, the company breaks for intermission and the audience eagerly awaits the second half.

In the title role, Daniel Breaker seems shaky during his opening moments but more than compensates as the play progresses. His urgency and confusion during the shipwreck matches the havoc around him, and the young actor's transformation into old age is stark and impressive; when Breaker gives himself a gravelly voice and a struggling gait, one could swear that the actor has aged himself 50 years. Margot White as his virginal daughter Marina gives a deeply moving performance, convincingly playing a woman who, after being kidnapped and brought to a brothel, convinces lascivious johns to turn away from sin and lead a churchly life. (This is no easy task!)

The production thrives on strong ensemble work. Some actors fare better than others but all keep the story moving along on its powerful course. Angela Ai as the goddess Diana has an angelic singing voice that draws attention to her small role. Many in the cast take on multiple roles with a clarity that keeps the difficult narrative grounded, yet the show is much larger than its actors: the designers of the puppets, masks, sets, lighting, and costumes all contribute to the spectacle. Fight director David deBesse guides the action and choreographer Tracy Bersley makes the natural movement onstage seem like dance.

The powers-that-be have decreed that this Pericles will be transferring to Off-Broadway for an extended run, which is definitely cause for rejoicing. Now, can we also trouble Zeus for fair weather during Shakespeare in the Park performances this year?

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