By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” is among the least recognized. Theater companies rarely produce it, so audiences rarely see it.
That’s why the new production of “Pericles,” one of two on stage as this summer’s New Swan Shakespeare Festival at U.C. Irvine, is good news for theater fans. Even better, it’s a supremely accomplished staging that underscores what makes “Pericles” such an outstanding play.
“Pericles” covers more geographic ground than any other Shakespeare play. Three of its settings are in what is now Turkey, two more in what are now Greece and Libya, and Tyre, the land over which Pericles is ruler, is within Phoenicia in modern-day Lebanon.
The play skillfully meshes drama, comedy, adventure, romance and mysticism. We see the awesome power of nature and the unearthly might of the gods, fierce storms at sea and men extending empathy to others less fortunate, and a physician who performs the miraculous deed of reviving someone from death.
Director Beth Lopes wisely uses humor and a deft, light touch to balance moments poignant and profound and to offset elements admittedly grim – incest, lethal famine, murder and bloodshed – yet integral to the story.
Lopes characterizes two of the six locations to offset other, darker aspects: Pentapolis (in north Africa) is depicted as party town central, a colorful, lively place blending Jamaica with South Beach (both circa the 21st century), while Mytilene (the Greek island of Lesbos) is reconceptualized as a rowdy, rough-and-tumble, wide-open town of the American frontier circa the 1880s. Anachronistic, indeed – but that’s part of the joke.
Efren Delgadillo Jr.’s scenic design whisks us from one location to another. Jennifer Lynn Deck’s costumes run the gamut from antiquity to the contemporary-tinged court of Tyre to the neon pastels of Pentapolis, yet achieve artistic unity. Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting, Meghan Roche’s sound and Allison Eversoll’s choreography are all of a piece.
The play’s broad emotional range is depicted by New Swan’s superb cast. We see joy, sorrow, anger, generosity, jealousy, hope, misery and despair – and, most redeeming of all, selflessness and unconditional love.
Randolph Thompson’s kind, honest face tells us all we need to know about Pericles, who is like Odysseus and Forrest Gump rolled into one. The character covers countless miles over the course of years, in search of himself and of his destiny. Roaming the ancient world, he suffers losses and endures unimaginable grief.
Thompson aptly portrays him as modest, stout-hearted and incapable of guile, a great leader searching for meaning in life and willing to bear whatever the fates choose to deal him.
It’s easy to spot the moment when Pericles and Thaisa, played by Hope Andrejack, bond: They perform a vocal-and-guitar duet that clinches their mutual attraction. Little could either know their future together will encompass both joy and sorrow.
Their daughter, named Marina because she was born at sea, figures prominently in Act Two where, as a young woman, she develops a talent for seeing what’s virtuous and honorable in men (and telling them so).
Annelise Hermsen brings out this remarkable young lady’s brilliance, intelligence and insight into human nature. Marina is among the greatest women characters Shakespeare has brought to life. Take Cordelia or Portia and magnify them tenfold and you’ll have a pretty good idea.
As the play draws to a close, the moment when Pericles and Marina are about to discover each other’s identity elicits excitement and anticipation, and their mutual recognition sparks heartfelt joy.
Even more resolution and joy follow that moment. To provide more detail would be a spoiler for anyone planning to see the show. Suffice it to say the play delivers a happy ending like nothing Hollywood has ever devised – and a whole lot less saccharine and more satisfying.
More memorable work is on hand from Sittichai Chaiyahat as Helicanus, Evan Lugo as Escanes and Lysimachus, and Abel Garcia and Meg Evans as Cleon and Dionyza. When Cleon learns Dionyza has committed a treachery so heinous it can barely be put into words, Garcia and Evans deliver one of the evening’s most potent scenes – Cleon venting his rage and Dionyza responding in kind.
Kayla Quiroz, Sean Spann, Robert Zelaya, Mary Marie Hill, Gio Munguia and Jax Dean deliver yeoman’s work, essaying a total of 21 roles.
Gower, the character who functions as the Greek chorus, is named for John Gower, the 14th-century historian whose writings provided details about events seen in the play.
Gower (Greg Ungar) is our entrée into “Pericles,” narrating and interpreting its events. As our surrogate, he feels what we as observers feel. Even more ingenious is how, in passing, the character moves in and out of the action, taking on various roles. It’s an effective technique all the more powerful for the surreal quality it imparts.
In that pivotal role, Ungar, an Orange County Shakespearean actor for decades, creates a dispassionate observer, as the role requires, yet his voice expresses considerable emotion. As such, he soars in the role.
“Pericles” is running in repertory with one of Shakespeare’s most popular and frequently staged works, “The Comedy of Errors.” While both shows use the same cast, it’s a sure bet that at New Swan’s box office, the comedy will outsell the rarity.
“Pericles” is one of the most remarkable Shakespeare works theatergoers have never seen – and New Swan’s version makes it one of the most satisfying things you’ll ever see on any stage, anywhere.
New Swan Shakespeare Festival, Gateway Commons/Gateway Plaza, 4004 Mesa Road, Irvine (University of California, Irvine). Running in repertory with “The Comedy of Errors” on Aug. 12, 18, 21, 25, 27, 31 and Sept. 2. Running time (with intermission): 2 hours, 15 minutes. Tickets: $25-$80. Ticket purchase/information: 949-854-4646, www.newswanshakespeare.com.