For the past several years, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival has included as part of their season a production of "Extreme Shakespeare": one of his lesser-known works staged in the style of his day, where actors learn their lines, scavenge their costumes, squat on a pre-made set, and rehearse together sans director only a few times before performing for an audience. This year's offering: a lively production of Pericles that proves to be a treat for both the audience and the actors.
The set, by scenic designers Bob Phillips and Samina Vieth, has been reclaimed from the PSF's production of Around the World in 80 Days. Though they choose not to make use of the steampunk aesthetic suggested by the clockwork gears liberally decorating the set, the giant map of the globe on the backdrop works well for such a travel-heavy play, and the clock face painted on the floor now signifies the mortality of humankind and the passing of years. Wooden benches, stools, chairs, and barrels make up the entirety of the set dressing; they begin the production overturned and covered in an enormous iridescent blue cloth that soon proves to represent the sea.
The base layer of the costumes are a simple uniform of jeans and t-shirts or button-downs. (The exceptions are Emiley Kiser's Marina, who sticks to a pretty and appropriately sea-green dress, and Richard B. Watson, who playing 75% of the kings in the production wears formal black trousers instead.) Over these, the actors don and discard accessories that give each character, and their location, a visually distinct look. Tyre is a land of light blue button-downs and black pea coats; Pericles has a bright aqua traveling scarf and a medallion of office which he shares with Helicanus, whose wisdom the audience can infer from his brown sweater vest and brainy spectacles. Decadent Antioch features the King in a knee-length black military coat and fez, and the King's daughter in a slinky, backless gold gown that really shows off (as Pericles notes) her face. In New Orleans-inspired Pentapolis, the audience sees the range of the social classes: from the poor fisherman in their mismatched coats and fishing caps (who lend Pericles a shirt, boots, and a burlap cloak with a lobster still attached) all the way up to Thaisa's sweeping purple gown (standing out from the other green-clad women) and King Simonedes' black suit, gold waistcoat, and top hat. In Mytilene, meanwhile, the lower classes wear biker-adjacent black leather (with an impressive tattoo-body-sleeve, in Pander's case) and corsets (Bawd only), while the governor Lysimachus has a plain coat with military white braid. Ephesus, home to the most spiritual characters, gives saffron and gold robes to its citizens and white veils to the vestals, echoing Diana's gold-trimmed white Greek tunic.
As the creativity of the costumes might suggest, it is clear that the actors, when confronted with the challenges of staging their production, chose to go all out instead of playing it safe. In many ways it feels like watching an actors' workshop, where the frequent plot twists, outrageous characters, sudden shifts in tone, and musical numbers in Pericles allows everyone a chance to show off their range. Christopher Patrick Mullen does a fine job as the title character. While he lacks youthful spirit at the beginning of the play to show contrast with Pericles' artificial aging at the end, he gives the role a pleasing energy, effortlessly switching between the extremes of Pericles' happiness at his good fortune, his stoic acceptance and grief at his misfortune, and his deadpan setup as the straight man to any number of hilarious melodramatic moments. Emiley Kiser as his daughter Marina likewise plays her part with an earnestness belying the unlikely plot; she is sweet and charming, with the strength of will to convince the unlikeliest people to help her out of her situation. Susan Riley Stevens also injects some realism into her performance as Dionyza. She sets up Dionyza's villainous plotting and jealous murder attempts with a milder lack of empathy: her disgruntled inability to calm baby Marina and a distinct awkwardness with her grown foster daughter's hugs.
Richard B. Watson seems to be having a excellent time in his kingly roles. His Antiochus offers an accented microcosm of charm concealing villainy, while Cleon appears to be a good man who is nevertheless unable to stand up to his wife's machinations. But Watson clearly has the most fun as Pericles' father-in-law Simonedes, channeling the spirit of Foghorn Leghorn and presiding over Pentapolis' festivities with palpable glee. Eric Hissom, Brad DePlanche, and Peter Danelski likewise dive into their roles as the three fisherman with particular relish, mixing philosophical rumination with burp jokes and folksy accents worthy of their own reality TV show.
Despite the absence of a director, the cast does an admirable job of presenting the play with a unique and engaging style. Gower's explanatory prologues for each act are split between the ensemble, often spoken (and reacted to) by the character to whom the lines refer. The production begins in darkness, with the cast imitating the sounds of a storm and lying on the stage as though shipwrecked when the lights come up; the cloth covering the stage is waved and shaken in its role as the sea. Reprises of Pericles' ocean voyages are reenacted with good humor (though the drama that ensues is taken seriously): cast members prompt him to remember his toy boat, which represents his actual vessel, then steal his shirt and spray him with water like a naughty puppy. There are several other light-hearted prop gags. The armor Pericles inherits from his father was clearly once the lid of a cooking pan – a connection no one attempts to hide, as it is ornamented with spatulas and ladles – and the joust is portrayed offstage, with the cheering bystanders supplying the sound effects via some Monty Python-style coconuts. Ilia Paulino (Lychorida, Ensemble) on guitar provides the instrumental music and many of the background vocals, and serenades baby Marina with a haunting lullaby. The cast performs several other musical numbers, including a percussion-only piece leading into a joyful square dance during the festivities in Pentapolis.
The overall impression is that the cast is having far too much fun with their material. However, this feeling is never exclusive; the audience gets to have just as much fun as they do. The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's production of Pericles is an excellent example of an artist's range and proof that the "extreme" performance conditions of Shakespeare's time can still inspire creativity even today.