Trevor Nunn directs Christian Camargo in this rarely seen romance by William Shakespeare.
It takes as long to describe the plot of William Shakespeare's Pericles as it does to watch it. It's a goulash of a play that features an incestuous father and daughter, two shipwrecks, intervening gods, a pantomime, and a jousting match. It can be a tough nut to crack, but when the eminent British director Trevor Nunn is at the helm, as he is in Theatre for a New Audience's new production at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, the experience is oftentimes quite lovely.
Believed to be the earliest of Shakespeare's romances, Pericles sets the tone for his four remaining works in this genre, a list containing the plays Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. It's structured like a tragedy with comic elements, until a mysterious string of events (usually with a hand from the divine) set everything right. Here, it begins with Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Christian Camargo) in Antioch, seeking the hand of the King's daughter. But Pericles soon sees the signs of incest between the king (Earl Baker Jr.) and his progeny, and he just as quickly flees so as not to be murdered by the vengeful monarch.
Pericles lands in Tarsus, a land suffering from a great famine. Unloading his ship's cargo of corn to save them, he wins thanks from Cleon (Will Swenson), the governor, and his wife, Dionyza (Nina Hellman). Fearing an attack, he flees again, only to end up shipwrecked in Pentapolis. There, he finds himself at a jousting tournament to celebrate the birthday of Princess Thaisa (Gia Crovatin). Of course, it's just when they fall in love and have a child that things start to go wrong. What ensues includes a burial at sea, a time jump of nearly two decades between acts, a kidnapping by pirates, and a magical reunion. Gower (Raphael Nash Thompson), a storyteller, narrates the proceedings.
Nunn's experience with Shakespeare (he's now directed all but two of the Bard's canonical works) shimmers throughout. In an effort to clarify the storytelling, he's rearranged the text somewhat and added passages by the author George Wilkins, who is widely believed to have written a sizable portion of Pericles. But three hours is still too long for this story — really just a series of events separated by shipwrecks, as scholars have noted — and rather than rearrange some of it, Nunn probably could have cut a chunk of text without affecting the overall arc.
But his physical production is rollicking, beautifully conjuring images of choppy seas through a mix of ropes and fabric on Robert Jones' minimalist set, with appropriately melancholy lighting (by Stephen Strawbridge). The vastly different locations are conjured through beautifully elaborate costumes by Constance Hoffman that evokes ancient fairytales. Irish composer Shaun Davey provides thrilling and melodic musical underscoring, performed, in an ingenious touch, by the talented actor-musicians of PigPen Theatre Co.
At times, though, the acting is more of a mixed bag. Few American actors speak the language of Shakespeare with as much finesse as Camargo does, and he is a mightily appealing Pericles, grounding the play with his dignified work at its center. Similarly, Thompson and Swenson show off a wonderful command of the text's musicality. Crovatin is an appealing romantic lead, though her command of the text is still developing. In the late-introduced role of Pericles and Thaisa's daughter Marina, Lily Englert is oddly disconnected from her role and the play itself.
The romances, with their sudden shifts in tone and jumps of decades between acts, aren't viewed with as high regard as some of the other entries in Shakespeare's body of work. Pericles, specifically, is the rarest of all, produced with considerably less frequency than works like Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. For completists, this is the chance to scratch another one off the list. And this production is a particularly handsome way to do so.