17 March 2017
Pericles, Prince of Tyre, by William Shakespeare and George Wilkins
Shakespeare’s (and Wilkin’s) Pericles, Prince of Tyre is one of my favorite plays, but it doesn’t get performed that often, so it was an absolute treat to see the play not only done, but done fantastically well by West Virginia University’s Theatre Department. The production, directed by Cornel Gabara, was well acted, visually stunning, and an overall success.
Pericles is a romance, following the fortunes of prince (later king) Pericles and his family as they travel throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Pericles runs into a number of rulers—some really bad, some moderately bad, some good—as well as a few average people like the fishermen in Pentapolis, and all of these encounters ultimately help shape Pericles into a good ruler himself. But the main focus of the play is his personal life. Pericles marries princess Thaisa, who “dies” giving birth to their daughter Marina, whom Pericles fosters with a “friendly” ruling family until she gets kidnapped and sold to a brothel whereupon the ruling family (who tried to kill her anyway) tells Pericles she died. These are the tragic downturns of the romance—that Pericles believes both his wife and daughter are dead. However, as he travels in despair, his ship happens to put in at Myteline, where Marina has managed to talk her way out of the brothel and into a kind of domestic service. She is brought on board to see if her singing can cheer the despairing king, and after a lengthy recognition scene they are reunited, whereupon Pericles has a vision from the goddess Diana to go to Ephesus and make an offering, whereupon he finds Thaisa, though by him to be dead, living as a devotee of the goddess. The family is reunited, and long-story-short, they end up controlling an empire throughout the eastern Med.
The WVU production did this rollicking and wide ranging adventure full justice. The acting at WVU Theatre is almost always good, and the Pericles cast brought great energy to their roles, which helped the play move both rapidly and amusingly. For me, the best performances were from Andra Ward Jr. as king Simonides, Lonnie DeVaughan Simmons as the choric narrator Gower, and Josh Clevenger as Pericles. Ward and Simmons are fantastic actors, with masterful commands of inflection, gesture, and utilizing stage space. For instance, Simmons played up the comic aspect of Gower’s (often poorly written) narration through small additions, such as the request for applause near the beginning, by mocking Dionyza’s (played by Taylor Morgan in a grotesque mask and fat suit) southern accent and girth as he reads Marina’s funerary inscription, and through the improvisation at the plays end where the rest of the cast abandons the stage relieved that the play is over, and Gower remarks “I thought it was a good story.” Clevenger gave an interesting take on prince Pericles, making him part romantic hero, part comic buffoon. While many of the monologues showed Pericles to be a chivalrous man, Clevenger’s propensity for getting knocked over—by the storm that shipwrecks him on Pentapolis, by other kings, etc.—ensures that the character always seems human.
I wanted to like Thaisa (Cassandra Hackbart) and Marina (Stefanie Lemasters), but—like many of Shakespeare’s female characters, especially in romances—there doesn’t seem to be much meat on those bones. Thaisa spends much of her time being rather submissive to her father then in love with Pericles, while Marina spends much of her time being virtuous and virginal. There just isn’t much to do with those characters to make them really compelling. That being said, both actors did a fine job with what are, in my opinion, not super-inspiring parts.
The other big triumph of this performance was the mise-en-scène, with both the costuming and the stage design. The stage design was a complex and mobile set of scenery, with moving walls, a ship that turned into castle ramparts, a screened backdrop that allowed parts of Gower’s narration to be acted out in shadow, and a giant statue of Diana.
What really impressed me though were the costumes (Mary McClung was costume director), which were complex, beautiful, and varied. This last point is important, because the WVU production embraced—in costume, music, dance, and performance styles—a cosmopolitan aesthetic, drawing from a ton of cultural and temporal reference points to show both the wide variety of peoples populating the eastern Mediterranean, but also the continual cosmopolitan intermixture of those cultures. I identified visual, musical, or performative influences from early modern Europe, medieval Europe, Greece, Persia, India, Africa/the African Diaspora, Jewish ritual, Japan, Spain, fascist militarism, and 1990s pro-wrestling. Especially scenes like Simonides’ court in Pentapolis were sumptuous visual buffets, as characters in a wide range of costumes joined together in dances (and I don’t usually care for dancing in theatre) or a flurry of activity.
Ironically, I was worried early on about the costuming because the play opens in Antioch with the evil king Antiochus (Ward), who is sleeping with his daughter and having her potential suitors killed. This scene saw Ward and his courtiers dressed as a kind of voodoo witchdoctor/pagan warlord, in contrast to Clevenger’s early modern European doublet, trousers, and boots. From a postcolonial standpoint, the decision to aesthetically identify the evil Antiochus with an African (diasporic) style represents a problematic associated between Africa and evil, while the virtuous Pericles is visually marked as European and therefore as good. However, this potential dichotomy of evil Africa and good Europe is undone by the overall cosmopolitanism of the play’s mise-en-scène, which blends so many styles that the blending itself becomes an admirable political gesture of cultural embrace and equality.
The only critique I would make of the WVU production was the brothel scenes. They were so slow. Painfully slow. One problem was that the lines simply weren’t delivered quickly enough, especially between Lemasters and the Bawd (Brianna Leigh Bowers)—though Boult (Zach Powers) was somewhat quicker both in delivering lines and moving about the stage—but I think the bigger problem was the absence of other people. Most of the brothel scenes were just Lemasters, Bowers, and Powers, and sometimes Adam Demopoulos (playing the Pandar). The empty stage and the cathedral style window lit in red on the floor (which was a good effect) were supposed to signal the contrasts between Marina’s virtue and the brothel’s degeneracy, but the fact that there was so much stage space with virtually no one in it meant that the scenes dragged. Especially in contrast to the whirlwind of activity in Simonides’ Pentapolis, there simply wasn’t anything developed in the brothel—which is, of course, a setting rife with possibilities.