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Graham Winton, Albert Jones, Philip Gordon,
and Bruce Turk in Pericles
(Photo © Richard Termine)
To drum up business for Shakespeare's infrequently seen Pericles at BAM, the Theater for a New Audience folks are advertising their truly spectacular treatment as the Bard's most-produced opus in the years immediately following its premiere and for some time afterward. Perhaps the idea is to suggest that the Elizabethans knew something we've lost sight of and that, if we want to be hip as those olde and avid theatergoers, we'd better get with it.

Left out of the slogan is the context in which Pericles flourished. Four hundred years ago, times were changing in England. The most significant difference for dramatic literature is that Shakespeare, whom we consider an Elizabethan playwright, was still writing after the virgin queen had shuffled off her mortal coil and James I was ushering in the Jacobean era. While some dramatists were taking the bloodthirst in Elizabethan works and getting thirstier and bloodier with it, there was also a vogue for romances and picaresque adventure plays.

Shakespeare was testing the waters as a romance writer when Pericles appeared. He was such a novice at the genre that, according to authorities, he was only one of a few playwrights who cobbled Pericles together for commercial consumption, though opinions differ as to who his collaborators were. Among the names mentioned are John Day, Thomas Heywood, and George Wilkins -- all of whom were apparently hanging around and looking for work in Southwark, where Shakespeare's Globe had been standing for some years. (The Globe opened in 1599.) Scholars also disagree not only on when the early romance was written -- 1607? 1608? -- but about what parts of it were written by Shakespeare.

There is general agreement that the Bard had little or nothing to do with the first two acts, although some say the awkward writing therein could be chalked up to folio problems. There is also general agreement that Shakespeare contributed much to the rest of the play, rising to his usual standard in sections of acts three, four, and five. There's also accord among those who've done microscopic textual analysis of the work that whatever committee coughed up the play, it didn't come up with much that's good; what Shakespeare mainly derived from the enterprise was experience to apply to Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. Driving home the consensus, Harold Bloom has written that Pericles "is the only play in Shakespeare I would rather attend again than reread."

Taking all of that into account, you'd never guess the low regard in which Pericles has been held from Bartlett Sher's production, which includes participation by his usual inspired creative team working at the peak of their estimable powers: set and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, costume designer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, and sound designer Peter John Still. Perhaps crafted with Bloom in mind, this Pericles would prompt even the staunchest detractor to revise his opinion of the play way upward. Having soaked in the pleasures of Pericles as presented by Sher, a ticket buyer could easily forget every recent Shakespeare mounting (okay, definitely not Jack O'Brien's Henry IV) and, on the basis of this version, declare the romance one of the best creations of Stratford-on-Avon's favorite son.

Possibly the most distinguishing element of Pericles is the title figure. He's the sole protagonist in any play attributed in whole or in part to Shakespeare -- tragedy, comedy, history, or romance -- who's absolutely good, without a tragic flaw. What he has in abundance is Job-like bad fortune, which begins when the Tyre king Pericles (Tim Hopper) travels from his home to Antioch in hopes of attaining the hand of the princess (Julyana Soelistyo) in marriage. Solving the rather sensational riddle that her father Antiochus (Christopher McCann) has posed (it concerns incest) and realizing that his solution has jeopardized him, Pericles flees the land; journeys to Tharsus, where he ends a famine for the seemingly benevolent Cleon (Robert LuPone) and Dionyza (Kristine Nielsen); is shipwrecked shortly afterward and is rendered destitute.

From then on out, our hero's fortunes ebb and flow like the (symbolic) waters that Neptune roils in this more or less Greco-Roman-influenced play. (The Pericles legend dates back to 600 or 700 A.D. and was retold by John Gower in a later epic poem.) Having journeyed to Pentapolis, the beset Pericles falls in love with Thaisa (Linda Powell), the daughter of king Simonides (Andrew Weems), and wins her hand but loses her at sea shortly after she's given birth to a daughter named Marina (Julyana Soelistyo). Buffeted about in several head-spinning escapades, Pericles only finds resolution later in life when, now played by Christopher McCann, he's reunited in a scene of touching emotion with the faultless Marina.

Tim Hopper and Julyana Soelistyo
in Pericles
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Because Pericles ends happily, it's termed a romance; the mode-codifying themes of birth, death, reconciliation, and resurrection are worked through the play like burnished threads. And Sher, an innovative contemporary Shakespeare wizard, has gone at the episodic (some might say ramshackle) piece with zeal. It would be almost impossible to itemize all of his jaw-dropping production fillips. Chief among them, however, are the choices he's made for the actors' doubling duties. For instance: Christopher McCann, initially seen as the incestuous Antiochus, is performing as Pericles at the moment when he is reconciled with Marina, who is played by Julyana Soelistyo, earlier the production's corrupted Antioch princess. The incestuous father and daughter have become the conciliated father and daughter; in other words, Sher echoes Shakespeare's themes in his deployment of the actors.

If his casting decisions are perhaps subtle, Sher is more noticeably bold in the staging, which begins with stately entrances while a lone musician (Carlene Stober on a viola da gamba) draws her bow back and forth upstage. Movement crescendos later when Pericles vies with four other suitors for Thaisa's hands and those involved in the sequence dance the conclusion of the contest. When Marina, sold for prostitution, interacts with her sellers (Robert LuPone and Kristine Nielsen, turning their prior impersonations upside down), Sher shifts low comedy into high gear. And it's all depicted as colorfully as an Easter parade filmed in Technicolor (Easter being about death and rebirth); set and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind has only a horizontal blue neon tube on stage at the start of the play but in time he introduces shimmering curtains, chartreuse chairs, and fish nets that are complemented by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's Sinbad-like wardrobe.

Pericles naysayers contend that the play's dramatis personae are not individuated as the most memorable Shakespeare characters are; rather, they represent types. That may be so, but on this point Sher also has the obvious solution: He counts on the actors to bring their own personalities, their own skills at individuation, to the table. They have done so. Hopper as the young Pericles and McCann as the older one find the humanity in what could be a cipher. LuPone, Nielsen, Soelistyo, Weems -- all of them breathe urgent life into their roles and are game for anything. So is Brenda Wehle as ancient (John) Gower, to whom Shakespeare bows for bringing the beguiling saga to the Elizabethans' attention.

"Forget about Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and Much Ado About Nothing!" That's what Bartlett Sher and troupe seem to be saying. When it comes to William Shakespeare, Pericles is the thing to catch the delight of an audience.

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