Shakespeare Repertory

at the Ruth Page Theatre

Pericles may be one of those plays that would never be produced if it weren’t by Shakespeare, yet paradoxically much of it is not by him. By putting it on, Shakespeare Repertory in effect disputes half its name. Shakespeare’s contemporaries did not include Pericles (1608) in their supposedly definitive First Folio (1623). Scholars believe the Bard wrote little that comes before the third act, and they don’t boast of what he did write–there’s more bombast than poetry in Pericles and it’s hard to care about the bland title character. Of course the Bard never relied solely on inspiration to fill his company’s commissions, but his genius seems to have really lapsed on this occasion. (The exception is the wry brothel scene, where chaste Marina’s awesome purity all but ruins the bordello’s business.)

In 1989 Shakespeare Repertory artistic director Barbara Gaines had a huge and unexpected success with Cymbeline, a more familiar, less fantastic late romance. So it makes sense to try to rescue another work from obscurity (though in fact Pericles was produced in Chicago as recently as 1984, by Bailiwick Repertory). And Shakespeare’s minimal contribution needn’t be an issue, if Goodman Theatre’s sick joke of a Twelfth Night is any indication.

Still, some plays do deserve their neglect. (It’s noteworthy that Pericles was wildly popular, however, before the Puritans closed the theaters in 1642.) Perhaps the fault is the lurching, often ludicrous tale. Even for a sensational sentimental romance, it blithely skirts the issues of time and place and glories in arbitrary improbabilities, and it displays the same concentrated, almost opaque writing style of The Winter’s Tale. Yet its wishful thinking and happy reconciliations are the essence of make-believe; like Cymbeline, it’s best treated as a fairy tale or wild dream.

The story traces the Mediterranean travels and manifold sufferings of the title Prince of Tyre. After guessing the incest between King Antiochus and his daughter, Pericles is forced into exile. Shipwrecked at Pentapolis, he wins the hand of Princess Thaisa in a silly tournament. While returning with Pericles to Tyre, Thaisa falls into a coma; to save the ship during a storm the supposedly dead woman is cast into the sea, but Pericles saves Marina, the daughter whom Thaisa bore on board. Thaisa washes ashore at Ephesus, where she’s cured and takes a job in Diana’s temple.

Sixteen years later a teenage Marina, escaping from the wicked woman to whom Pericles entrusted her, is also rescued–by pirates who sell her to a Mytilene brothel. Awestruck by her virtue the governor, Lysimachus, buys her freedom. His action sets up the clumsily constructed reunions of father and daughter, husband and wife, and mother and daughter.

It’s a melodramatic merry-go-round of a plot–this is just a bare-bones synopsis–with a passive hero who’s buffeted by circumstances and helpless before fate. But one of Pericles’ lines in the fifth act, “Your present kindness makes my past miseries sports,” offers the key to playing this sprawling spectacle: deliver the goods by embracing the wondrous happenings without judging or burlesquing them. Gaines’s staging neatly avoids the first peril but indulges in the second. She takes “sports” too literally–she can’t resist throwing in some lame comic touches at the expense of the already-suffering Pericles (who gets water dumped on him) and beleaguered Marina (rescued by Keystone pirates). The slapstick and joking disrupt the magical mood.

Yet overall this Pericles, as beautiful to see as it is to hear, successfully overcomes–or distracts from–the story’s silliness; certainly Alaric Rokko Jans’s supple score injects the romance’s excesses with some real passion. Though this Pericles never achieves heroic or tragic stature, by the end Peter Aylward finds a hard-earned pathos as a heartsick sufferer with a despair almost like Lear’s; his reunion with Christine Calkins’s noble Marina (a worthy sister to Perdita) returns Shakespeare Repertory to the magic of its Cymbeline. Kristine Thatcher gives Thaisa a survivor’s dignity, but her contrived reunion with Pericles is anticlimactic after the big one between father and daughter, and it’s marred here by a stupid joke that breaks the spell.

Though the stock characters in Pericles are poor clowns by Shakespeare’s standards, they provide much of the vitality in this potentially aimless pageant. Greg Vinkler is hilariously bumbling as the matchmaking king who slyly tricks Pericles and Thaisa into love. The narrating, sometimes editorializing chorus, here played by Peter Siragusa, Christopher Walz, and Ora Jones, do fine work setting up the story. But the brothel scenes–in which Marina’s holy lectures undermine her trade–read funnier than they play; they’re the only scenes Gaines seems to take too seriously.

This company’s consistent strength is its perfectly integrated technical design, a blessing to any script but especially a weak one. You can see it in the way Michael Merritt’s spare but telling set pieces work with Robert Shook’s dappled, intricate lighting. Even more of a feast for the eyes are Nan Zabriskie’s eye-popping Renaissance costumes, gorgeous silk, satin, and brocade extravaganzas that deserve to have a theater museum erected around them. They certainly made the audience look very dull.