There is something quite grand about the simplicity of the imagination. Within this realm possibilities are endless. A few loosely woven baskets, some Persian rugs, and an old industrial vacuum hose suddenly becomes a magical elephant walking across a stage set on the shores of Pentapolis. Time can be as finite as sand spilling through one’s fingers, or it can be as timeless as an ancient book holding the miraculous and never-ending stories of another time, another place. Director Joel Sass takes his audience on an epic journey through the comedy, the tragedy, and the romance of Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Tyre, which geographically lies about fifty miles south of Beirut, translates to “rock,” befitting of our steadfast, albeit two-dimensional hero). Eight actors and a small ensemble cast of four embrace the bevy of some forty roles, mixing the real with the grand illusional. Pericles is the play’s golden boy and is the embodiment of virtue. He is a hero not because of some superhuman strength or power, but because of his ability to remain patient in the midst of a turbulent sea of troubles. The play opens with Pericles pursuing the hand of King Antiochus’ daughter by means of solving a riddle. The answer reveals the daughter’s incestuous relationship with her father. Rather than expose the answer, Pericles clandestinely escapes with his life and without the now unwanted hand of Antiochus’ daughter. During his journeys across the Mediterranean, our hero helps the people of Tarsus who are beset by famine; ventures out again and meets and marries his wife, Thaisa, who bears him a lovely daughter, Marina, during a particularly stormy day at sea. Thaisa “dies” giving birth, and Pericles leaves Marina in the hands of his trusted friends in Tarsus who believe, after a fourteen year jump in time, they have successfully murdered the beauteous Marina for stealing the spotlight from their own daughter, not realizing Marina was, instead, abducted by pirates and sold to a distant brothel, whose patrons she single-handedly converts from vulgar to virtuous through her clever and chaste reasoning. Pericles returns to retrieve his daughter, and upon learning of her “death,” falls into a silent grief. In the end, Shakespeare reunites the family with a little magic, a little miracle, and a little imagination on our parts. Those who do wrong are either massacred in some miraculous manner or converted, and those who do right are rewarded in the end.
Sass’ vision is something of a fairytale, told in part through the memoirs of his childhood. Sass recounts his youth, dashing ‘round in the fields of Wisconsin:
“…we could go out to the shed and clear the tools off my dad’s tool bench and declare that it’s the deck of a ship and we’d have no other permission to make it so than our own imaginations. So what we tried to do with this production was to imagine that we were going to take all of you back in time to some strange beach on the shores of North Africa or somewhere in the Mediterranean Rim…and just like in theatre from the earliest earliest times, some storyteller comes forward (and says), “I’m wearing my magic outfit and I’m going to tell you everything; I will become whomever you need and I’ll take you to wherever you need to go which is where imagination gives me permission to do so.”
Costume design is exotic, with flowing fabrics fitting the good or bad nature of the character within. While the incestuous daughter hides herself behind a sheer black wrap, Marina wears beautiful blues in honor of her name. Fishermen wear oversized straw hats and layers of dried grass in Pentapolis to help relocate the audience from the turbaned heads and unsheathed hands in Antioch. Costume Designer Raquel M. Baretto also creates the animals of these storybook lands, dressing tigers, horses, and that amazing, water spurting elephant to an audience of “Ooooo’s and Ahhhh’s.”
Melpomene Katakalos’ set design in simple yet magical. About a dozen rugs lie in a collage center stage—a stage strewn with sand. Hanging lanterns cast a magical glow upon the large ginkgo-shaped fans, water jugs, pillows, and various, though pointed props scattered about. The most imposing is a circular tree trunk center stage through which actors may enter and exit, and through which the audience looks as a sort of porthole to other lands. Sea travel is expressed by way of long and vibrant blue fabric stretched across the stage, rippling stronger as stormy weather ensues. Perhaps the most important prop is a large, ancient book, the pages yellowed with time. Rather than cut or divvy Gower’s role as the Chorus, Sass invites him into the play as the omniscient storyteller, serving to move Shakespeare’s plot, but also to act as what Sass calls the “Custodian of the Story.”
“It’s sort of nice to have someone who is the custodian of the story, because that individual—how they relate that story to us (and) how they help us understand what’s coming next—also helps us to understand how to receive that information. If somebody who knows this story so well can still be moved to tears or dread by the turnings of the plot or the characters they have care of, that helps us to understand what import to read in their trials or fate.”
Shawn Hamilton, who comes to the Bay Area after fifteen seasons with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, makes his debut at Cal Shakes as the eerily omniscient, yet somehow comforting Gower. One of Shakespeare’s source texts for Pericles is the very similar adventures of Apollonius of Tyre, from the eighth book of John Gower’s 14th Century text, Confessio Amantis. Hamilton portrays Gower as a sort of ancient sage who walks through the “porthole” and toward the audience with his head covered, delivering a low throaty chant as though channeling the story we are about to hear. Hamilton’s voice turns amazingly hypnotic and spiritually harmonic, echoing its calls throughout the hills and valleys surrounding the frigid outdoor amphitheatre. Hamilton also plays the parts of Marina’s nurse, Lychordia, and of Diana, the play’s deus ex machina, but he channels each role through Gower, permitting his character even more power and insight to both move and participate in the story.
The most important thing Sass does for his audience is to make us somehow care about the fates of each character onstage. Dramaturg Philippa Kelly explains that unlike many of Shakespeare’s plays, “there are no major monologues in which to gain an intimacy with the characters in the play, yet these characters have hearts that you care about." This is true. Christopher Kelly also makes his Cal Shakes debut as Pericles. Kelly, draped in white and wearing a golden breastplate, is always lighted from above in such a way that makes him glow upon the stage. Our hero looks as though he just flew in on Pegasus after slaying the evil Medusa and saving some princess in some faraway land. It is Pericles’ job to endure his many hardships, and the audience’s job to follow him as he does. Pericles neither changes nor grows during his adventures, yet we care about him and want him to win in the end.
The doubling and tripling of characters gives this production a dreamlike atmosphere, permitting the same people to appear and reappear in different forms. Ron Campbell plays the incestuous and vicious Antiochus, as well as Cleon, the Governor of the famine-plagued land of Tarsus, while Sarah Nealis is superb as Antiochus’ dark and seductive daughter, and then later as the chaste and morally-driven Marina. Kelly plays not only Pericles, father of Marina, but also Pandar, the owner of the brothel that purchases Marina in order to sell her virginity over and over again. They don’t make a spectacle of the doubling; rather, it leads one to do a double take, saying, “Hey! Isn’t that… Wasn’t that?” One is even tempted to care about the grotesque and deformed Bawd (Delia MacDougall), who also plays the role of Thaisa, Pericles’ sweet yet spicy wife who courts Pericles with one heck of a seductive dance. Perhaps we even covet some empathy for the evil Dionyza, played by Domenique Lozano, who arranges the murder of Marina for the sake of her own daughter. Lozano also plays Cerimon, the Ephesean “lord” who revives Marina’s mother from the dead. It all sounds very confusing, but somehow this small cast makes it all work very well.
Comedy also works well in this production, from the slapstick approach of the brothel, to Danny Scheie’s portrayal of the well-loved party King of Pentapolis, Simonides, whose name is always followed by a spirited raise your hands in the air “Eh-Eh Oh!” Who wouldn’t love a king who tosses candy into the audience as he parades through the streets with his spouting elephant? Scheie also portrays Pericles’ wise friend, Helicanus, and resides in the brothel as the humpbacked Boult, his deformity likely arising from the many smacks and slaps he endures from the brothel owners, poor dear.
Alex Morf excites many laughs playing Antiochus’ right hand man, Thaliard, as a sinister simpleton with a speech impediment. Morf always brings an innate element of comedy to his many roles in this production, playing one of three fishermen who gut an eight foot rendition of a fish onstage, or playing one of three knights who joust for Thaisa’s hand, riding Flintstone versions of horses in a dance-off, of sorts. I remember seeing such horses in Peter Shaffer’s 1984 screenplay, Amadeus, and they prove just as charming on Sass’ stage. Morf later plays the role of the licentious Lysimachus, who, in another production, may be questioned when at the end of the play he is given Marina’s hand in marriage (after attempting to bed her in the brothel) without even so much as a nod of consent from the dear girl. This production appropriately sweeps that notion under the rug.
This cast deserves much credit for their ability to take the audience to the many locations in Pericles. The set design stays basically and charmingly the same, yet we get the feeling that we’ve visited different Mediterranean islands and ports off the coasts of Asia and North Africa. This cast offers custom, dialect, and almost across the board excellence in acting. So gather ‘round the rugs, snuggle in with a blanket and something warm, and enjoy the carpet ride. You’re sure to be enchanted.