During the 16th and 17th centuries, one of the several reasons ruling authorities disliked theatre was because of its popularity. It couldn’t control the crowds. Shakespeare’s Globe was nestled on the south bank of the River Thames, which back then was not a part of London. The city was on the north side. So when Londoners went to see a play, the only way they could get there was by entering the gates of old London Bridge, crossing on foot, and walking en masse towards the theatre.
One of the most well-received plays of its day responsible for causing concern was Pericles, Prince of Tyre. It was so popular that productions were constantly revived, causing not only controlling issues for the administrations but also for London employers. Plays were matinee only, so employees would often skip work for an afternoon at the theatre. Ironically, today, Pericles has become one of the least known of Shakespeare’s work to the point where even students have never heard of it until it comes up on the study list. Because of this, opening the rarely produced Pericles, Prince of Tyre along with Frankenstein in repertory to begin Southwest Shakespeare Company’s 25th anniversary season isn’t simply audacious, it’s exciting.
Using the same actors, the same Kristen Peterson set design of an Elizabethan era facade, and almost the same crew – Frankenstein’s costumes are credited to Maci Cae Hosler while the design honors for Pericles belongs to Jessica Florez – and set among the Greek islands of the Mediterranean, Pericles tells the episodic tale of the ruler of Tyre and his eventual reunion with those he both loved and lost.
Keeping in line with the symbol of the sea – much of the play takes place on rough waters or on the beaches and ports of the many Greek islands – this new interpretative SWS production begins with nothing but the sound of designer Peter Bish’s roaring ocean, including the creaking of a ship’s timber and the faint echo of a vessel’s ringing bell. Then the entire cast enters facing the audience, beginning one of the many atmospheric musical interludes of haunting, then sweet harmonic and occasionally even robust sounding voices that will be used throughout the production. It’s from there where the play’s presenter, Gower (a burly, rugged Keith Hall) emerges to begin the tale. John Gower was a real-life fourteenth-century personality who Shakespeare resurrects from the dead – “From ashes, ancient Gower is come” – to introduce the scenes and to act as host and storyteller. Shakespeare is said to have used Gower’s 1390 work Confessio Amantis as a reference for writing Pericles. And he’s an extremely important figure.
Pericles’ structure is very loose, even messy. Gower isn’t simply a presenter of each new element, he’s there to recap moments already seen in case we’re lost, which can be a danger, particularly if you’re new to the play. There’s a sprawling timeline, a series of different islands to remember – Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus, and Mytilene – plus there’s a lengthy list of difficult sounding character names to recall. It’s Gower’s job to help put it all in perspective. But it isn’t just Gower who helps establish the scene.
Usually, when a production of Pericles finds its way to the stage, Gower is directed straight, his monologues delivered as written; dry, to the point, and interrupted by a ‘dumb play,’ the term given to a silent re-enactment performed by the characters illustrating what we’re about to see or what we’ve already seen. In this production, director Quinn Mattfeld has incorporated these mimes into the monologue itself, so as Gower steers the plot, the players react to the presenter’s explanation, backed by changes of lighting and sound effects. It’s very effective, not only adding substance to the moment but eliminating the need to interrupt Gower’s speech, allowing it to flow without a break.
It was director Mattfeld who adapted the SWS production of Frankenstein, and though he’s not credited as one for Pericles, the director of any new Shakespeare production could also be considered an adapter. It’s here where Mattfeld’s talent for presenting the classics in a new light is given free creative reign. In addition to the scenes involving Gower, invention abounds, as when the famous jousting tournament required for Pericles (Joshua Murphy) to win the hand of his future bride, Thaisa (Kim Stephenson Smith) becomes a medieval version of the WWE. And when characters enter and speak in asides, they’re not simply voicing inner thoughts, they’re sharing information directly with us. It’s as if all characters are fully aware they’re actors in a play.
Classifying exactly what kind of play Pericles is can sometimes be difficult. Generally termed as a Tragicomic Romance, while Mattfeld’s production never shortchanges either the drama or the tragedy, there’s heavy emphasis on comedy, as when Lysimachus (Dalton Davis) exposes his washboard abs before the tournament to impress the swooning babes. “Flapjacks?” asks one of the eager three fishermen when talking of food. And when Ryan L. Jenkins reads the shocking news regarding the unexpected, violent death of two characters, she looks up and declares with an incredulous, “WHAT?” inspired, no doubt, by comic writer Amber Ruffin’s funny weekly bit ‘Amber Says What’ from TV’s Late Night with Seth Meyers.
Mattfeld’s only comic misstep is with having the brothel madame Bawd played in drag by a bearded Jesse James Kamps. Having the character act as though she’s part of an English holiday pantomime, complete with a bad wig adjustment and a running joke of having entrances and exits blocked by another character – “I’m watching you” – feels oddly jarring. It’s trying too hard.
There’s much debate as to who really wrote Pericles. The general consensus is that the play was either a collaboration or that an unknown writer, possibly a playwright called George Wilkins, penned the first nine scenes while Shakespeare took the remaining thirteen. The name is unconfirmed, but the theory makes sense. Much of the detail normally associated with William Shakespeare is missing in those early scenes. The King of Antioch is unimaginatively called King Antiochus while the writer didn’t even bother to give the important role of his daughter a name. She’s simply Daughter. Yet when Shakespeare is thought to have taken over, there suddenly comes a richness of quality in both dialog and characterization for the remainder of the play. Pericles’ virtuous daughter Marina, a role that doesn’t appear until Act IV, has some of the best, most detailed and expressive dialog passages in the piece, here well delivered by an engaging Melissa Toomey.
An issue that newcomers to the Bard’s work are often confronted with is boredom, particularity when a production lacks a creative interpretation or you’re seeing actors deliver their lines on automatic pilot. It’s lazy. Done right, the play and the performances should be full of life, of excitement, the kind that even if you’re already aware of the outcome you’re still on the edge of your seat wondering what might happen next. Imagine Macbeth where the performer gives you pause for thought that he might snap out of his murderous obsession and stop what he’s doing, or an Othello who makes you think, if only for an instant, that he’ll overcome his jealous rage and not kill Desdemona. Director Mattfeld brings that passion for performance to Pericles.
With his work on Frankenstein and now with Pericles, Prince of Tyre, the new Interim Producing Artistic Director has unexpectedly infused the company with a welcome shot of creative adrenaline. For the remainder of its run, it’s unlikely there’ll be a crowd marching along Mesa’s main street to get to the arts center in the way audiences marched across London Bridge, but maybe they should.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre continues in repertory with Frankenstein at Mesa Arts Center until November 10
Pictures Courtesy of Durant Photography