By William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by Joel Sass
California Shakespeare Theater
May 28-June 22
Photo: Kevin Berne
Pity poor Pericles as he wends his perilous way from Greek island to Turkish-like mainland. Loss follows on tragedy and disaster is not far behind. And yet, this, one of the least of Shakespeare’s plays (there is some scholarly question whether he even wrote it), is something of a comedy. There is, I believe, a good reason why rarely performed works are rarely performed. “Pericles” is a case in point. The louder the applause due CalShakes’ intrepid cast and crew for turning this difficult piece into an evening of fun – even when it’s so cold in the Bruns outdoor amphitheatre in Orinda that the audience huddles under blankets and the actors actually can see their breath.
The story couldn’t be more ridiculous, at least by today’s standards. Incest, shipwrecks, pirates, assassins, the dead brought back to life and a royal virgin sold into a house of prostitution provide the props on which the story stands. Yet director Joel Sass’ conception, combining music, dance, and mime and mining every nugget of comedy out of each situation, makes it more than palatable. A strong case for the parts being greater than the whole.
A cast of 12, including several Bay Area favorites, does double and sometimes triple duty in the roles. They are anchored by Shawn Hamilton as Gower, a kind of one-man Greek chorus, who acts as a mysterious narrator, sometimes singing, sometimes shouting and always riveting. The title role is played gracefully by Christopher Kelly. This is not Pericles of Athenian fame, the one who commissioned all those statues, but a lesser ruler, a young prince of Tyre who comes to woo the daughter of a Persian king (the always-wonderful Ron Campbell) only to find out that daddy and she are a clandestine couple. Shocked at the revelation, Pericles flees the court, unaware that he is fleeing for his life. King Antiochus has put out a contract on him, not wishing his dirty little secret to come out.
Pericles’ travels take him to a poverty-stricken island where his generosity earns the gratitude of the king (Campbell again) and his queen (Domenique Lozano). Still pursued, he takes to the seas again and is shipwrecked on another island, ruled by another king who has a daughter. But this time he has better luck, the king (a very funny Danny Scheie) and his daughter (Delia MacDougal) are both virtuous and hospitable. There is a wedding. When Pericles gets word that his incestuous enemies are dead and he is needed at home, he and his now-pregnant wife set sail once more. Another tempest blows up; the princess (apparently) dies in childbirth and is thrown overboard and Pericles drops his newborn daughter off at the island of the grateful king and queen.
And so it goes. Fast forward some 14 or 15 years. Pericles has not returned and the grateful queen has grown jealous of his daughter, Marina (Sarah Nealis), now grown to lovely womanhood. She hires an assassin who is interrupted in the murderous act by pirates who sell the girl to a house of prostitution. But such is Marina’s virtue that she puts all her would-be customers to shame and escapes with her virtue intact – if you can believe such a thing. Sheie has another comic turn here as the doorkeeper of the whorehouse and MacDougal plays the madam. Pericles arrives eventually, convinced that both his wife (miraculously restored to life by a clever doctor (Lozano again) and daughter are dead and most of the second act is spent unraveling the tangled skein.
In addition to the above, Alex Morf plays a couple of murderers, as well as the suitor of Marina. And, if there is a problem with this production, it may be the multiplicity of the actors’ roles. Changes of costume and accent don’t prevent the viewers from occasionally scratching their heads and saying: “Hey wait a minute. Wasn’t he just so-and-so? On the other hand, if you believe in magic, just clap your hands. And there is a wonderful fairy tale magic to this show. It may not be Shakespeare’s best but, at CalShakes, it’s better than you might expect.