Since 2008, director Carolyn Houston Boone has staged two lesser-known plays by the Bard at Miller Outdoor Theatre, the Houston Shakespeare Festival’s popular outdoor venue. Whereas last year’s staging of Cymbeline had its drawbacks, Boone’s current staging of Pericles, Prince of Tyre takes a highly creative approach. Instead of casting one actor to play the Chorus role of poet John Gower, Boone employs several company members who take turns at narration.
From the production’s opening scene, the entire cast appears onstage, helping the audience settle in for storytelling time. Using the vivid, bright colors of a children’s fairytale and an abridged script that clocks in at less than two hours, Boone gives Shakespeare buffs an enjoyable introduction to a picaresque play whose first two acts are believed to be written by George Wilkins. (Written a few years before The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, Pericles anticipates their style of allegory and deus ex machina.) Although Pericles isn’t nearly as compelling as Don Quixote or Huckleberry Finn, two of the world’s greatest picaresque novels, this late romance can be something of a sleeper when handled effectively.
When the tale begins, Pericles is a suitor to King Antiochus’ daughter, asked to solve a riddle that has befuddled previous bachelors. After hinting at the answer—that Antiochus has an incestuous relationship with his daughter—Pericles realizes that his knowledge poses a threat to his own safety, so he makes his escape from Antioch. The rest of this story unfolds as he journeys from Tyre, his kingdom, to Tharsus (where he aims to help the hungry, stricken by famine) and Pentapolis (where he disguises himself to compete for the hand of Thaisa, the daughter of King Simonides). After winning Thaisa’s hand in marriage, Fortune begins to devil him, robbing him of Thaisa while she gives birth aboard ship, and separating him from his infant daughter Marina, who he leaves with the untrustworthy governors of Tharsus.
Using tall placards with place names, Boone clearly charts the frequent movement of Pericles and Marina from port to port by way of the treacherous seas. Playing Pericles, Guy Roberts offers a towering portrait that is consistent and sincere. Bob Boudreaux, who plays Helicanus, with whom Pericles trusts his kingdom, offers a solid performance. Thomas Prior (Cleon, Governor of Tharsus) and Elissa Levitt (Dionyza, Cleon’s diabolical wife) are convincing antagonists to the hero. As Cerimon, the doctor who helps revive the presumably dead Thaisa in Ephesus, Jonathan Colunga is especially impressive. Jennifer Cherry’s vision of Marina is respectable and particularly well executed during scenes with the masterful Paul Hope (Lysimachus, Governor of Mytilene). Actors playing the lowborn characters who inhabit Pander’s brothel offer a lively diversion. Rutherford Cravens (Pander) and Celeste Roberts (a madam in his house) carry off portraits of Marina’s captors that are delightfully bold and cruel.
When the action settles in Pentapolis, Boone’s fairytale aura momentarily degenerates into melodrama, which feels strange in contrast to the somber atmosphere of previous scenes. The courtship scene involving David Wald (Simonides, King of Pentapolis) and Jessica Boone (Thaisa, Simonides’ daughter) gets a bit silly, as the pair present an irreverent vision of the Pentapolis royals. Toward the end of the play, Alex Dorman’s brief vision of the goddess Diana, presented under a door against a shining halo of light, is a lovely image.
Contributing to the visual effervescence are the pastel lighting designs of Matthew Schlief and the colorful costume of Margaret Monostory Crowley. Crowley appears to blend early and late 19th-century long dresses reminiscent of England’s Regency era and the American frontier, resulting in an odd pastiche. One or two costumes include nothing but a camisole, petticoat knickers and Western lace-up ladies’ boots. This style works in the brothel but seems out of place in many other scenes.
The actors in this company each double in more than one role, to satisfying effect. Pericles is rarely performed today, compared to some of Shakespeare’s more popular late romances like The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale. Boone’s technique of engaging multiple narrators in between action sequences makes for an engaging allegory. I suspect many in the HSF audience will recall this production for years to come. Many scholars feel that George Wilkins’ poetry in the first two acts sounds wooden compared to Shakespeare’s blank verse in the last three acts. Wilkins’ simpler verse style may be easier for 21st-century English speakers to hear and understand. And however weak Wilkins’ verse is presumed to be, it comes across plainly and clearly amid the distracting background noise of Miller Outdoor Theatre.
The Houston Shakespeare Festival’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre plays through August 9 at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park, 100 Concert Drive, Houston, TX 77030. Admission is free. Free reserved seating is released in advance on the day of the performance. Call the box office at (281) FREE-FUN or visit www.houstonfestivalscompany.com.