David Barlow as Pericles, Rami Margron as a princess with a riddle to solve. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com
Reverence has seldom surrounded Pericles, Prince of Tyre since its earliest days, more than 400 years ago. Although producers routinely credit its authorship to William Shakespeare, presumably because the Bard's name sells tickets, mavens doubt that he wrote much or even any of it.
The language is atrocious by Shakespearean standards and the plot is a preposterous mashup of melodrama and romance that Elizabethans loved but few in subsequent centuries have treated kindly. So who could blame director Mark Wing-Davey and his creative collaborator, Jim Calder, for taking an axe to the text and turning the remaining skeleton into a jet-speed circus as they reshaped the tale for Berkeley Rep, where it opened a few days ago.
Wing-Davey commands a reputation for adventurous stagings. In Pericles he outdid himself, abetted by designers who transformed the Rep's Thrust Stage into an industrial wonder, employing sliding metal doors, a glass-walled granary, a swiveling crane, and a hoist that raises and deposits a crystal chandelier, a high-powered marine engine, a Roman goddess and more.
The roster of visual innovations goes on and on, often to the detriment of what little sentiment the play possesses. Here are a few:
To simulate a ship-demolishing storm, a high-pressure fire hose drenches the stage and actors who careen wildly on a spring-loaded platform; to represent a passionate wedding night, that movement-sensitive platform -- now cushioned -- lets the nuptial couple rock and roll in manic exuberance; to suggest a medieval jousting contest, knights' heads appear above a stage-wide screen as they dash and crash into each other. And if one of those jousters turns out to be Batman, hey, that's just another kick.
Nothing wrong with that, is there, if wacky stagecraft's the object?
Underlying the contrivances, of course, is the thinly sketched saga that carries Prince Pericles from peril to peril and shipwreck to shipwreck until he is finally, joyously reunited with the wife and daughter that he thought dead.
Everyone in the cast of eight fills multiple roles, though David Barlow spends most of the show's two-hours-plus in the title role. He carries off the task with versatility and masculine grace.
The prince's adventures begin with his effort to win and wed a princess whose previous suitors have all lost their heads for failure to decipher a simple riddle. Pericles unravels it, discovering that the princess and her royal father have an incestuous relationship, and skips town post haste. He realizes that some things are best left unsaid.
Shock and joy at an odyssey's end: Barlow with Annapurna Sriram as daughter Marina. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com
Flight to Tyre doesn't guarantee safety, however, since he's pursued by a would-be assassin dispatched by the king (an imperious James Carpenter, in luminous robe and headpiece, aglitter with mirrors). So Pericles heads for distant places once more, this time by sea.
His first port of call is Tarsus, a city-state afflicted by drought. Its people are starving and their ruler, Dionyza (Jessica Kitchens), fears the approach of Pericles's ship augurs invasion. When it turns out that he only intends to deliver a load of corn, joy and gratitude flow, and Dionyza seems destined to be a friend for life.
Subsequent episodes don't run nearly so smoothly, though one shipwreck deposits Pericles in a land where he wins the love of a princess, Thaïsa (Kitchens in a softer guise), after crunching Batman in hand-to-hand combat. Love and marriage lead to the aforementioned romp on the bouncing bed and first-night conception, followed by another voyage. This time the shipwreck's consequences include the miraculous rescue of his newborn daughter and the apparent drowning of Thaïsa.
Years pass at a breakneck pace amid implausible events and transformations, slowing only for a cheery sketch that finds daughter Marina (Annapurna Sriram), now a teen-ager, sold into prostitution. Her purity compels johns and employers alike to see the light of virtue.
And that twist of fate leads in turn to one of the most affecting if improbable reunions in all of Shakespeare. Regrettably, it receives little more than a swift glance in this staging.
Much of the story is narrated by British actress Anita Carey as Gower, whose name can be traced to the 14th century English poet who adapted the play from its ancient Greek origins. Like Elizabethan audiences, the Greeks apparently had an immense capacity for suspending disbelief.
Wing-Davey and company -- including a three-piece ensemble that provides all manner of terrific musical and sound support -- have turned this Pericles into a showcase for quirky stagecraft. If that sounds like your dish, have at it.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre runs through May 26 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$77 (subject to change), from 510-647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.
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