‘Pericles’ at American Players: Through crazy accents, keeping the Bard’s rhyme and reason
“Pericles, Prince of Tyre” by William Shakespeare, at American Players Theatre through Oct. 22. ★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
SPRING GREEN, Wis. — To use Shakespeare and farce in the same sentence is almost certainly to think of “The Comedy of Errors,” and maybe patches of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Probably not, however, the late romantic adventure tale “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.” But it is precisely a generous infusion of over-the-top silliness that makes such endearing stuff of “Pericles” at American Players Theatre.
As with “Timon of Athens,” written around the same time, scholars have long questioned just how much of this late play is actually by Shakespeare. Again as in the case of “Timon,” the consensus is that another writer penned the first part of “Pericles” and Shakespeare contributed the last two-thirds or so. Indeed, “Pericles” was excluded from the First Folio of Shakespeare’s collected plays – which appeared in 1623, seven years after his death – and only came to be produced with any regularity in modern times.
Prince Pericles is more like a king, the ruler of Tyre: young, bold and unmarried. In hope of amending that last condition, he ventures to Antioch where King Antiochus has offered the hand of his beautiful daughter in marriage to any man who can solve a riddle. But to fail is to be killed. Pericles quickly gets the riddle all too clearly: It reveals an incestuous relationship between the king and his daughter. His insight puts Pericles’ life in great danger. He tells Antiochus he needs to time to ponder the riddle and is granted 40 days, whereupon Pericles flees the city and Antiochus sends an assassin in pursuit.
Not safe even in his homeland, Pericles leaves Tyre in the care of a surrogate and goes on the run. We follow him from country to country, observe his good deeds, see him win a wife in a tournament of combat. But things take a dark turn for Pericles. His wife apparently perishes at sea in giving birth to their daughter Marina. As the prince must continue his fugitive life, he places Marina in the hands of trusted friends with whom she grows into a young woman of noble bearing and great talents – only to have her life threatened by her guardians. She is saved by pirates, but they sell her to a brothel in yet another land. To be brief, through amazing coincidence and miraculous circumstance, all – seriously, everything – ends well. You might grasp how farce could lie near this narrative.
Director Eric Tucker turns the play into a headlong tumble of events depicted by a clutch of actors all in multiple roles, mostly costumed with comedic minimalism and smartly attuned to the outrageous improbability of what’s going on. Yet what ultimately makes the show work, what renders the madness genuinely touching, is Tucker’s respect for the emotional truths at the story’s core. We are shown reason to care about Pericles in his vicissitudes, and especially to empathize with the vulnerable and misused but quite clever Marina (played with affecting directness by Cristina Panfilio).
Also playing it straight are Juan Rivera Lebron and James Ridge as, respectively, the handsome young Pericles and that prince grown old, worn and dispirited by his years of flight and heartbreak. Ridge, in triple duty, also cuts a swanky monarch and a moustchioed madam of a brothel. No less loopy is Marcus Truschinski as Antiochus’ relentless hit man, armed with a walking cane that he wields as a long-barreled pistol, holstered down one leg of his pants. Looking like the Terminator, Truschinski slinks around in a trench coat and sunglasses and speaks in a thick Russian accent. Tracy Michelle Arnold’s King Antiochus, got up in a high crown and grand purple robe trimmed in gold, likewise forms her h’s in the back of her throat, but still manages to come off as authentically sinister.
Even while speaking in sundry accents that reinforce the idea of Pericles’ travels, the entire cast preserves the rhythm and clarity of Shakespeare’s language. Nowhere is this marvelous duality on more remarkable display than in David Daniel’s mile-wide Oklahoma drawl as Cleon, the governor of Tarsus, now beset by a dustbowl-level drought. Cleon’s situation is desperate and Daniel conveys the full measure of that seriousness with an impassioned, goll-darn delivery of Shakespeare’s every syllable.
Cast members double as stage crew to reset the scene in transit as Pericles makes his way through the world. Both set designer Andrew Boyce and costumer Daniel Tyler Mathews parlay bits and pieces into wonderfully evocative statements of place and populace. And you just never know who’s going to pop out of a trunk or a trap in the stage floor. Shakespeare’s prince may never have made a more fantastical journey.
- Performance times and ticket info: Details at AmericanPlayers.org
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