Review: Pericles, Shakespeare’s Very Happy Ending

Target Margin revives Shakespeare’s rarely produced nautical adventure. 

In both the theater and life it’s too much to expect a happy ending — much less one as deliriously joyful as that which can be found in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. This rarely performed Shakespeare collaboration (evidence abounds that the Bard only wrote the final three acts) is receiving a bare-bones production from Target Margin, the off-off-Broadway company that can now be found in a converted warehouse in Sunset Park that they have rechristened the Doxsee Theater. Clocking in at 105 minutes, director David Herskovits’s messy, half-considered staging is worth enduring for those magnificent final scenes.

The story begins in Antioch where Pericles (Eunice Wong) discovers the truth about the king’s incestuous relationship with his daughter. His best friend, Helicanus (Peter Romano), advises him to flee. He lands in Tarsus, where he alleviates a famine, winning the appreciation of Governor Cleon (Shawn K. Jain) and Dionyza (Hannah Tamminen). Then he washes up in Pentapolis, where his performance in a tournament impresses King Simonides (Anthony Vaughn Merchant). Pericles weds the king’s daughter, Thaisa (Mary Neufeld), who appears to die at sea while giving birth to their daughter, Marina (Susannah Wilson), whom Pericles unwisely entrusts to the perfidious rulers of Tarsus. Pericles thinks he has lost both his wife and daughter forever, but could he be mistaken? We certainly hope so, if only to make this labyrinthine plot worth it.

The design is hit-or-miss: Kaye Voyce’s minimal set includes a moving wall and the flimsiest of folding chairs, which works just fine for a play that travels as extensively as this one. Clusters of lightbulbs hang from the grid like grapes in a Levantine orchard (simple and effective lighting by Cha See). Herskovits’s aggressive and eclectic sound design seems meant to graft a mood onto each scene, but it frustratingly overpowers the words at key moments.

Perhaps in a postmodern feint at the rich fabrics of the mysterious East, costume designer Dina El-Aziz adorns the cast in multi-colored rabbit fur, tulle ruffles, and silver lamé. It looks like they got lost on the way to a Scissor Sisters reunion concert on the Brooklyn waterfront, and decided to amuse themselves by forming a study group around one of Shakespeare’s more confusing plays (I reread it the night before, and I still occasionally felt lost in this retelling, so viewer beware).

This liberally trimmed revival proceeds haphazardly, with the actors taking up and abandoning the verse, occasionally stepping out of the scene to summarize events in contemporary vernacular. The land acknowledgement is awkwardly shoehorned into the second act (it turns out, “Lenapehoking” doesn’t scan so gracefully). And for some reason, Herskovits has directed the actors to adopt exaggerated courtly poses, like ballerinas ever reaching for an invisible barre. It must have seemed like a good idea in rehearsal.

Nuggets of brilliance emerge in this casserole of undercooked concepts: Wilson is powerfully understated as Marina, immediately taking hold of the central narrative late in the play. Jain has the strongest handle on the verse of anyone in the cast, delivering clear and effective performances as both Cleon and Cerimon. Tamminen’s portrayal of the sinister Dionyza has the potential to make one’s blood run cold.

Despite these solid supporting performances, we cannot escape the suspicion that this potted Pericles speeds along at a breakneck pace in order to arrive at one of Shakespeare’s most touching scenes, the reunion of Pericles and Marina.  

Wong and Wilson do not disappoint, lucidly delivering the verse in a performance that is deeply moving without veering into overwrought sentiment. Every beat feels earned as the two actors gingerly circle one another, daring to entertain the possibility of reclaiming a happiness they thought was lost forever. For a 17th-century audience accustomed to frequent plagues and high levels of childhood mortality, this must have felt like a particularly wonderful dream. And to a lesser extent in our post-Covid world, it still does.

If that sounds enticing to you, be sure to catch Target Margin’s Pericles, because the play seldom crashes onto our shores.