The Delaware Shakespeare Festival’s inaugural Community Tour begins at the Achievement Center in Wilmington, Delaware, but this reentry services center is just the first of many stops for their production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The DSF plans to tour throughout Delaware, showcasing Shakespeare for underserved audiences as they visit homeless shelters, correctional facilities, and community resource centers, and their earnest and engaging Pericles is coming with them.
The DSF’s production is based on the touring model of the Ten Thousand Things Theater in Minneapolis, and everything from the quick-change costumes to the movable set-pieces to the small cast of eight has been designed to adapt to each venue with ease. The production uses an in-the-round model (though “in-the-square” might be more geometrically accurate for the Achievement Center’s conference room) with the audience on all sides of the 14' by 14' stage area. The set pieces, designed by David Meyer, are minimalist and functional, yet elegant and visually striking. Graceful fans of twisted metal fronds serve as decorative screens for palaces and temples, rounded curves of metal slats act as thrones and chairs, and a low wooden table bounded by wire and rope doubles as coffin and altar. Each piece is easily manipulatable by the cast during their set changes, while the flowing lines echo the ocean’s waves and the unusual media create a sense of the fantastic that help give the production a timeless aesthetic.
Katherine Fritz employs a similar vision with the costume design. The cast wears matching black Toms slip-ons and basic black leggings, over which go an everchanging cycle of tunics, robes, and dresses. Pericles spends the production in loose linen pants and shirt, with a sea-green and gold brocade tunic during his times of good fortune and a variety of threadbare vests during his many times of misfortune. Thaisa, meanwhile, trades a complementary flowing teal infinity dress (increasingly besmirched by her trials) for a pristine white version when she enters the service of the gods. Her daughter Marina echoes this color scheme, inheriting her intelligence and resilience even as Marina’s white shift, petticoat, and flower crown also symbolize her innocence. It is left to the audience to determine whether there is some greater message behind the more corrupt locations (or people) along Pericles’ journey having a more modern, Western feel with sport coats and evening dresses in Antioch, waist coats and ornamented sleeveless shell in Tarsus, and snappy suits and fedoras in Mytilene. The main exception are the grey hoodies that serve as armor for Pericles and the honorable knights in Pentapolis.
The play’s many plot twists verge on the incredible, but the cast focuses on their emotional resonances and keeps each performance grounded and relatable. Jamal Douglas gives the title character a warm and mild-mannered exterior that handily explains the ease with which he gains near-instant friendship and loyalty throughout his travails. At the same time, Douglas makes it clear that Pericles also possess a great deal of inner strength which is accentuated, not concealed, by his kindness as he weathers plot twist after plot twist. There are many examples of the cast’s versatility, of which Bi Jean Ngo in various ensemble roles provides a particularly excellent one. Ngo gives the same level of care to her brief but funny turn as the assassin Thaliard, leaping and creeping through her sinister mission with hilarious transparency, as she does to imbuing the role of Thaisa with charm and determination. Her chemistry with Douglas is sweet and appealing. Similarly, Ruby Wolf’s multiple roles demonstrate the thought put into every character as she brings out the parallels between the daughter of Antiochus and Marina. The result transforms what could have been a thankless role as the Princess of Antioch into Wolf's sympathetic and memorable portrayal of someone who has been abused trying to protect others from her abuser if she cannot get help herself; it later heightens both the stakes of Marina being sold into sexual slavery and the triumph when she is able to escape her situation. The solid performances that fill this production are overshadowed only by their precise execution, as the cast effortlessly handles the drastic changes of roles, costumes, and sets.
Director David Stradley keeps the pace flowing smoothly and, while treating the characters and emotions with due seriousness, gives the whole production a fairy tale feel — an excellent match for both the story and the chosen setting. Judicious edits to the text not only make the action more clear — Gower’s choruses have been trimmed and distributed evenly among the cast as the characters in question act out the narration — but also dispense with the play’s more problematic subtext. Gone is the victim-blaming of the daughter of Antiochus; the incest lays firmly on Antiochus’ head, and she escapes his fate when he is struck down by fire from heaven. Stradley also drops the references to Marina and Lysimachus’s engagement and the breakdown of who will rule what kingdom at the end of the play. Freed from upholding the status quo of proper gender roles and the golden chain of monarchy, the focus returns to the reunited family of Pericles, Thaisa, and Marina and their personal triumphs over adversity — a much more relatable conclusion.
Pericles may not be one of Shakespeare’s most well-known works, but in the hands of the Delaware Shakespeare Festival’s Community Tour, it proves to have the same universal themes — and appeal. The production doesn’t just seek out their audience, it welcomes them in, and delivers an experience of Shakespearean theater at its greatest.