Thursday, August 1, 2019

Pericles (Independent Shakespeare Company’s 2019 Production) Theatre Review

The Pericles set, before the play begins
One of the best things about summer in Los Angeles is seeing Shakespeare in Griffith Park. Every year the Independent Shakespeare Company chooses two plays to perform on their stage in the park. This year one of their choices is Pericles, Prince Of Tyre. Pericles is the only one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays that was not included in the First Folio (no, sorry, I’m not counting The Two Noble Kinsmen), and it is one that is not produced all that often. It has a somewhat wild plot that includes shipwrecks, people who are believed dead but are not, prostitution, pirates and incest. It is that last element that might feel timely, as it is a twisted tyrant who is having a sexual relationship with his daughter (sort of like a certain guy who has been pretending to run this country for a few years). The play also has some strong female characters, which you’d think would make it more popular today. And while this play presents some challenges to those wishing to stage it, it also presents some wonderful opportunities for actors, for it contains some incredibly moving scenes at the end, as well as some delightfully humorous scenes early on. The Independent Shakespeare Company, of course, capitalizes on these opportunities in the current production of Pericles.

Before the performance begins, some of the actors make their way to the picnic tables off to the right of the audience, and others off to the left, carrying chests and suitcases. They then approach the stage from those positions, essentially surrounding us as they take the stage. This company always makes great use of the space and the audience. After the usual announcements and words of thanks to the sponsors, Gower (the Chorus) begins his opening speech. And actually, just before that, a line is added, spoken by all: “Once upon a time.” This helps to prepare the audience for the somewhat fantastic story line offered by this play. The action shifts locations several times throughout the play, and to help the audience keep track of where they are, the set includes two chalkboards listing the locations in the order they are visited. In his opening speech, Gower (Hao Feng) is positioned on a ladder next to one of the chalkboards, and when he mentions Antioch, he indicates the first location listed there. Then throughout the play, as the action shifts to a different location, the previous location is crossed out.

The opening scene is intriguing, because it is here that Pericles learns of the incestuous relationship between Antiochus (Xavi Moreno) and his daughter, whose hand Pericles hopes to win. What is particularly interesting is the way Bukola Ogunmola portrays the king’s daughter. There is a sort of odd teasing in her delivery of the “Of all say’d yet” lines. She seems to be a willing participant in the relationship with her father, and not a victim. She does not wish to be removed from the situation, does not wish to be saved by Pericles, which is a rather startling and exciting choice. Then, on Antiochus’ “or receive your sentence,” the others on stage suddenly stand, ready to kill Pericles, as they clearly have done to all before him who have tried to win the daughter’s hand. It shows they don’t expect Pericles to be victorious, and shows that this is routine for them, and that they are eager to carry out the task. It’s an excellent touch.

Lorenzo Gonzalez is wonderful as Helicanus, a lord of Tyre and trusted counselor to Pericles. And it is that first scene with Helicanus and Pericles that we begin to see what a phenomenal performance Gyasi Silas gives as Pericles. This is a character that experiences a lot. He has power, but also fears for his life after learning Antiochus’ secret. He suffers incredible heartache and sinks into a serious depression, but then also experiences tremendous joy. Gyasi Silas is so adept at making us feel every turn of the character’s journey, and to care for him. And that is no easy task. After all, a lot of what befalls Pericles is not really caused by him, but by circumstances and other characters. It could be easy to let him feel like a supporting character in his own story, his own life. Gyasi Silas delivers a powerful and moving performance, one of the best I’ve seen so far this year.

David Melville, co-founder of the Independent Shakespeare Company, is delightful as Cleon, the governor of Tarsus. He is always fun to watch, and manages to bring out the humor in the characters he plays. Cleon and Dionyza (Sabra Williams) are both clad in black when we meet them, as if mourning the poor state of their nation. On Cleon’s “and beg for it,” others behind him briefly do beg for the tiny morsel on his fork, which he then pop into his mouth. There are a lot of laughs in this scene, and when Pericles enters and distributes bread to the characters, he tosses two pieces out into the audience. However, it is Sabra Williams’ other performance in this production, as Bawd, where she really gets a chance to shine. She is hilarious in her portrayal of the woman who is trying to run an honest brothel, only to be thwarted by Marina’s chastity.

There is quite of bit of humor in other scenes as well. For example, when Pericles encounters the two fishermen (yes, there are two rather than three in this production), when one says “I have a coat here” (changed from the text’s “I have a gown here”), she takes the other one’s coat to give to Pericles. And the tournament scene is hilarious. The fishing net is still attached to Pericles’ armor, a humorous touch. And William Elsman is absolutely fantastic as Simonides, the king of Pentapolis, his excitement almost palpable. He brings out a couple of “knights” from the audience to join the competition, and then calls Pericles (who at that point is also in the audience) to the stage too. There are three rounds to the tournament in this production: a three-legged race, a tug-of-war and a joust. The joust, however, is done with Italian bread, not lances. And the dance that follows is done first to Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and then to The Platters’ “Only You (And You Alone).” I love the joy and total delight that Simonides takes in making the match between his daughter Thaisa (Aisha Kabia) and Pericles. Also, Pentapolis has such a different vibe from the other places, which is great. This company really makes each location distinct, so that the chalkboards aren’t even truly necessary.

The storm scenes are also done quite effectively, with some lighting cues and some wonderful work on percussion, as well as by the choreographed and coordinated movements of the actors. But it is those final scenes that are most moving and most effective, when Pericles is reunited first with his daughter and then with his wife. Again, his performance is outstanding throughout the play, but he is perhaps at his best in these climactic scenes.

Pericles was directed by Melissa Chalsma, co-founder of the company. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, which comes at the end of Act III. By the way, I and those around me thought the intermission would come when the last location on the first chalkboard was crossed off, but by the time of the intermission, two locations on the second board were also crossed out. The performance, including intermission, runs approximately two and a half hours. It is free to attend, though donations are strongly encouraged. There is also a concession stand, with food and drink and clothing for sale, another way to help the company with the costs of putting on these productions. When you go, be sure to take a close look at the Pericles T-shirt, for there are some delightful details in the artwork on the front. This shirt is one of my favorite Shakespeare T-shirts (along with a Winter’s Tale shirt that has a picture of a bear on it with that play’s most famous stage direction). Pericles runs through August 30, in repertory with Twelfth Night. Check out the Independent Shakespeare Company’s website for the complete schedule.

The Pericles set, during intermission
One last personal note: In 2010 I began seeing as many Shakespeare productions as possible, with the hope of seeing all thirty-seven plays (again, no, I’m not counting The Two Noble Kinsmen). Pericles was number twenty-nine for me.

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