Last month I traveled to Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Libya, and the Greek island of Lesbos. There were also two storm-tossed sea voyages as well. And it all took place over 2¾ hours on a Thursday evening—and I never left Brooklyn. It was all a little breathless . . . but exhilarating—and quite enchanting (in a literal sense), too.
Okay, you probably guessed (the headline above kinda gives it away, doesn’t it?) that I didn’t really go anywhere other than the Theatre for a New Audience’s new home in Fort Greene, the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (right near BAM). My frequent theater companion, Diana, and I drove over on 24 February to see TFANA’s marvelous production of William Shakespeare’s Pericles, imaginatively staged by Sir Trevor Nunn. The production started previews on 14 February and opened on the 25th; it’s currently scheduled to close on 10 April (extended from 27 March).
Theatre for a New Audience was founded in 1979 by its current artistic director, native New Yorker Jeffrey Horowitz, 67, as a home of classical theater to present the works of William Shakespeare—the company’s produced 28 of the Bard’s plays—beside those of other playwrights, including moderns like Edward Bond and Adrienne Kennedy. (In June, Diana and I’ll be going over again to see the two-play rep of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and August Strindberg’s The Father.) The theater’s purpose, they state, is to create “a dialogue over centuries between Shakespeare and other authors about our contemporary world.” In its history, TFANA has mounted many acclaimed productions, several of which have traveled across the country and even abroad. In 2001, TFANA became the first U.S. troupe to be invited to bring a Shakespeare production, Cymbeline directed by Bartlett Sher, to the Royal Shakespeare Company. (The company returned to the RSC in 2007 with its production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Darko Tresnjak with F. Murray Abraham as Shylock, a production I saw here in rep with Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in which Abraham played Barabas. My blog report on Merchant was posted on 28 February 2011 when TFANA revived it in New York City.) Among the company’s programs are the Actors and Directors Project, a training program for theater artists, and a program for introducing Shakespeare to New York City public school children, the World Theatre Project launched in 1984. The theater’s New Deal program offers $20 tickets to students and theatergoers 30 and under.
Until 2013, TFANA was an itinerant troupe, renting space in theaters all over Manhattan for its productions. In the fall of that year, however, the company opened its first permanent home on Ashland Place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a burgeoning performing arts center in the borough known as the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District (anchored by the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s three venues). The Polonsky Shakespeare Center, named in recognition of a gift from the Polonsky Foundation, contains the 299-seat Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage, a state-of-the-art, variable-space black box (35 feet tall with traps and a flexible platform system that permits seven stage and seating configurations); the Theodore C. Rogers Studio, which can accommodate 50 spectators; administrative offices and production support spaces; and facilities such as a lobby café and book kiosk. The $47.4 million, 27,500-square-foot building was designed by architect Hugh Hardy of H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture. The 2015-16 season will be TFANA’s third in its new home.
With this production of Pericles, Trevor Nunn has checked off three entries on his bucket list: it’s one of three Shakespeare plays he hadn’t directed (the other two are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King John, which Nunn’s slated to direct in London shortly), and it’s the first Shakespearean production he’s originated with an American cast and the first to début in the U.S. Now 76, Nunn was born in Ipswich in Sussex, England, and began his theater life at Downing College, Cambridge University, where he met contemporaries Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi. Having been introduced to Shakespeare and theater as a schoolboy, he appeared in plays at Downing and in 1962 directed Macbeth at the college. He joined the RSC in 1964 and four years later was appointed artistic director, the youngest to hold that post. He remained in that post until 1986, the longest tenure of any RSC director, and in 1997 became artistic director of the National Theatre, where he remained until 2003. Nunn became known for his innovative staging of Shakespeare’s plays, and later as a successful director of popular musicals.
By the 1970s, Nunn had become one of the leading figures in British and the English-speaking theater. He staged many premières, including several important productions, such as 1980’s 8½-hour The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (co-directed with John Caird) which starred Roger Rees in the title role; Nunn dedicated his production of Pericles at TFANA to Rees, who died last July at 71. (A Broadway production opened in 1981 and won two Tonys: Best Play and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Rees. In 1983, a televised version was broadcast in the U.S. on the Public Broadcasting System.) He became a successful director of musicals in the commercial sector, including Cats in 1981 and Les Misérables (also with Caird) in 1985, among many others. In 2002, Nunn was made Commander of the British Empire in recognition for his services to theater in the U.K. In 2007, he directed Ian McKellen as King Lear for the RSC, taking the show on a world tour—including a stop at BAM, where I saw the production (see my report posted on ROT on 28 March 2009, when the play was broadcast on public television). He became resident artistic director of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, for the 2011-12 season, and returned there to direct the play Fatal Attraction in 2014. Nunn has also directed for opera, film, and television.
The world of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre, as it’s formally entitled (TFANA uses the one-word title), is the Mediterranean basin in what appears to be around 200 BCE. (Isaac Asimov apparently chose that date because one of the play’s characters is King Antiochus of Antioch, referred to elsewhere as Antiochus the Great, who reigned from 222 to 187 BCE. Frequent ROT contributor Kirk Woodward’s forthcoming article, to be published on this blog later this month, is a report on Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, a 1970 reference work.) All of the places Pericles visits in the play were real cities in the Hellenistic world of antiquity: Antioch, a city in ancient Syria (now in modern Turkey); Tyre, in Phoenicia (modern Lebanon); Tarsus, in Cilicia (part of modern Turkey); Pentapolis (literally, ‘five cities,’ referring to a group of five cities that are politically, commercially, and militarily linked), in Cyrenaica (the coast of modern Libya); Ephasus, in Anatolia (modern Turkey); and Mytilene, the largest town on Lesbos, the Greek island in the Aegean Sea.
Prince Pericles of Tyre (Christian Camargo) has traveled to Antioch where he’s the latest in a line of suitors for the hand of the beautiful daughter (Sam Morales) of King Antiochus (Earl Baker, Jr.), who’s told all suitors that they have to decipher a riddle to win her; if they fail, they’re executed. (On Robert Jones’s set, this fate is signaled by the skulls and decomposing heads of failed princes mounted on pikes upstage.) When the princess recites the riddle, Pericles sees the answer, but realizes that it reveals the incestuous relationship between the king and his daughter. Fearing for his life whether he reveals the secret by answering the riddle correctly or refuses and thus fails the challenge, Pericles flees for home. Realizing that Antiochus’s will send assassins after him even in Tyre, Pericles appoints his counselor Helicanus (Philip Casnoff) to rule as regent and then sets sail from Tyre.
Landing at Tarsus, Pericles learns that it’s stricken by famine. (We see this in a pantomime of the people of Tarsus depicting starvation. In these large group scenes, the ensemble is composed of members of the PigPen Theatre Co.—Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi, Dan Weschler—who do multiple duties and show up as needed.) The prince generously gives his shipload of corn to Cleon, the Governor of Tarsus (Will Swenson) and his wife, Dionyza (Nina Hellman) to feed their citizens, to the eternal gratitude of the governor and his lady (just wait!). A messenger from Helicanus informs the prince that Antiochus’ assassin, Thailard (Oberon K. A. Adjepong), has come to Tyre hunting him so he takes to the sea once more. A violent storm wrecks his ship, however, and Pericles is the sole survivor. He washes up on the shore of Pentapolis.
Coming upon a trio of fishermen (John Keating, Zachary Infante, Ian Lassiter), the bereft prince learns that King Simonides (John Rothman) is going to hold a joust the next day in honor of the birthday of Thaisa (Gia Crovatin), his beautiful daughter. By chance, one of the fishermen enters with a net in which a rusty set of armor has been entangled—and it turns out to have belonged to Pericles’ father! Clad in the old armor, Pericles enters the tournament and, out-jousting the other knights, wins the admiration of Simonides and the love of the princess. She swears that she’ll marry no one else and her father heartily approves. Pericles, who hasn’t told Simonides or his daughter who he really is, and Thaisa are married and take up residence in Pentapolis—until they get word from Tyre.
Helicanus, who’s been ruling wisely in Tyre in the absence of Pericles, sends word that Antiochus and his daughter have both died, dissolving the threat to the prince, but that the Tyrians are anxious for the return of their ruler. Finally revealing his identity to his now-pregnant wife and her father, much to their delight, Pericles sets sail at once for Tyre. As a violent storm hits, however, Thaisa begins to give birth and is taken below, where she seems to die bearing their daughter. The superstitious sailors demand that the grieving prince cast his wife’s body overboard. Thaisa’s coffin floats ashore in Ephesus, right near the home of a physician, Cerimon (Baker), who opens it and declares that the woman within isn’t dead at all and, with the help of his servant, Philomen (Morales), brings her around. Thinking her husband and child have drowned in the storm, Thais becomes a votress of the goddess Diana, whose temple is nearby.
Meanwhile, Pericles’ ship, having survived the squall, makes for Tarsus with the prince and his infant daughter, whom he’s named Marina because she was born at sea. Afraid of encountering another storm, Pericles entrusts Marina to Governor Cleon and Dionyza, to be raised alongside their daughter, Philoten, and continues to Tyre.
Sixteen years pass during which Marina has lived as the adopted daughter of Cleon and Dionyza and she grows into a beautiful and accomplished young woman. In fact, Marina is so superlative that everyone speaks of her and ignores Philoten (Morales in an uncredited silent role), arousing the jealousy of Dionyza, who arranges for her servant Leonine (Infante) to murder her. Just as the killer’s about to execute his assignment, Marina is grabbed by pirates who carry her off. Leonine reports to Dionyza that he completed his dastardly task, but the pirates have born Marina off to Mytilene where they sell her to a brothel-keeper (Adjepong) and his bawd (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) who plan to offer her virginity to the highest bidder. Not only does the chaste Marina refuse to behave like an obedient prostitute, but she succeeds in converting her would-be customers, among whom is Lysimachus, the Governor of Mytilene, to her virtuous ways. Marina is so bad for the brothel’s business that the pandar and the bawd are glad to have her off their hands, so they agree to sell her services to Lysimachus, who’s so taken with her wisdom and virtue that she convinces him to hire her out as a tutor of music, weaving, and dancing to the young girls of Mytilene.
Wishing to be reunited with his daughter, Pericles visits Tarsus, only to learn that Marina has died while they were separated. So grief-stricken is the prince at the news that he dons sackcloth and swears not to bathe or cut his hair ever again. Refusing to speak to anyone, the heartbroken Pericles sets sail for Tyre.
Once again, Pericles’ ship is struck by fate, blown by the wind to Mytilene, where his ship docks, although Pericles remains on board in a rude tent on deck, speaking to no one. Governor Lysimachus pays a call on the ship to learn who’s aboard and welcome them. Helicanus explains that their passenger is the King of Tyre but that he won’t speak to anyone out of grief. The beautiful Marina, whose history no one in Mytilene knows of course, is nearby delighting the city with her dancing and singing, and Lysimachus has the brilliant idea—remembering her magical powers of gentle persuasion—to have her brought aboard to cheer the dejected king. Marina manages to get Pericles to talk a little and bit by bit, they find their stories fit together and with great joy father and daughter, who had each thought the other dead, reunite. Soon after, to obey a vision of the goddess Diana (Hellman, raised up high behind a scrim and intoning in an otherworldly voice in an honest-to-goodness deus . . . er dea ex machina), Pericles and Marina sail for Ephesus to make a pilgrimage to the Temple of Diana. There he finds his long lost wife, Thais, and the whole family is reunited—with the addition of Lysimachus, who’d asked for Marina’s hand and been accepted by both daughter and father.
Note that all Pericles’ destinations are on or near the coasts of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. Phoenicians were renowned sailors of the ancient world and Tyrians were famous for their navigational skills. It’s not surprising, then, that Shakespeare’s Pericles is a sea voyager and that his story is that of a wanderer. (Another rationale critics like to point out is that the early 17th century in England, not to mention across Europe, was a time of exploration, discovery, and colonization so the parallel with Phoenicia would have rung invitingly familiar to the Globe’s audience.)
Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a late play, written about 1607 or ‘08 and was one of the King’s Men’s most popular productions during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The text (in an unreliable version) was first published in 1609, attributed solely to William Shakespeare (1564-1616), but it’s more than likely that the Bard only wrote the second half of the play (the story of Pericles and Marina). The first part is generally believed to have been written by George Wilkins (c. 1576-1618), an inn-keeper who was a pamphleteer and a second-rate playwright on the side (as well as a participant in possible criminal activities).
Pericles was probably first staged in 1608 or ‘09, very likely at the Globe. It was frequently revived during the 17th century, but conflicted with the Neoclassical standards of the 18th and disappeared from stages for almost two centuries. It returned to performances in the middle of the 19th century, but, in keeping with Victorian tastes, was much bowdlerized (all that incest and brothel stuff offended Victorian sensitivities!). The play wasn’t as popular as it had been two hundred years earlier, but its profile rose again after World War II. It’s considered a difficult play to stage, but many of the English-speaking theater’s most renowned directors (Terry Hands, Peter Sellars, Adrian Noble, Joseph Haj, Dominic Dromgoole—and now Trevor Nunn) have mounted the play with different innovative staging ideas—not to mention adjustments to the “unreliable” and unruly text. In the current century, there have been stagings, often vastly different from one another in style and focus, in London (RSC at the Roundhouse, 2002; Shakespeare’s Globe in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015); Stratford, Ontario, Canada (Stratford Festival, 2003 and 2015); Washington, D.C. (Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburg Theatre, 2004; Taffety Punk Theatre Company at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, 2014; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Folger Theatre, 2015); Jersey City, New Jersey (Hudson Shakespeare Company, 2006 and 2014); Chapel Hill, North Carolina (PlayMakers Repertory Company, 2008); Staunton, Virginia (American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, 2014); Minneapolis, Minnesota (Guthrie Theater, 2016).
I’m not thoroughly conversant with all 37-or-so plays attributed to Shakespeare, but it’s my guess that Pericles has more settings and covers more ground than any of the others by far. There are six towns across the Hellenistic world (some visited twice) and two shipboard scenes (complete with storms in both!). It’s also loaded to the gunnels with plot, unlike any other Shakespearean play of which I can think. Pericles may be the first picaresque play; I got the feeling that Voltaire or Jonathan Swift may have borrowed the idea for Candide or Gulliver’s Travels. It may also be the only Shakespeare play with an actual deus ex machina. (If any reader can think of a Shakespeare play with more settings or another one with a true deus ex machina, please leave me a Comment.)
The TFANA production of Pericles is terrific. Not the play itself, of course, which, as you can probably see, is a mediocre mess. But Trevor Nunn’s staging, from the design concept to the (original, live) music, to the script-trimming (a must), to the acting (not to mention the singing, dancing, and pantomime), all work to make a magnificent piece of theater. (The director rearranges scenes and cuts others, edits long speeches to turn them into dialogue passages, and sets other speeches to music.) Christian Camargo is good, but Pericles is pretty much the string that connects the episodes; it’s all the members of the ensemble, most of whom take on several roles, who are the pearls. They make this production really worth watching, playing the hell out of the script and creating some wonderful characterizations. The production runs two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, and, despite the absurdly incredible plot, I was absorbed from opening prologue to closing reunion scene. I wonder if this is a 21st-century version of how these plays worked as audience pleasers and popular entertainments in Shakespeare’s lifetime. (In the New York Times, Christopher Isherwood called Pericles “the equivalent in the Shakespeare canon of a popcorn picture”!)
Nunn comments in the program, “The text repeatedly asks for music, dance, the mime of musically accompanied ‘dumb show’ and then a strong indication that some passages should be sung. . . . Shakespeare seems to be intent on providing opportunity for what can only be described as ‘total theatre.’” From the evidence on TFANA’s Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage, the director means that quite literally; this production is really Pericles: The Musical. Not only does Nunn incorporate music composed for the show by Shaun Davey that sounds like a mash-up of Elizabethan/Jacobean folk tunes and 21st-century pop (but not quite either so it comes out totally sui generis), but choreographer Brian Brooks inserts dance and panto scenes that seem as if Shakespeare had, indeed, mandated them in the script. The Scripps stage is a modern evocation of an Elizabethan courtyard theater, as TFANA characterizes it, and as such is a thrust with spectators around three sides. Nunn and Brooks keeps the cast in motion to play to the entire house, making Pericles a swirl of action and color (from the costumes, which I’ll get to shortly); when the musicians play, they swell the company so that it fills the stage with movement, often weaving around itself in a series of serpentine streams. The dumb shows, such as the starving citizens of Tarsus, the jousting tournament in Pentapolis, and the one illustrating Marina’s matchless accomplishments overshadowing the awkward efforts of her adoptive sister, Philoten, are delightful—both amusing and illustrative.
What I didn’t include in the narrative description, but which is integral to Nunn’s production concept, is that Shakespeare (or Wilkins) provides a narrator, a kind of one-man Greek chorus, in the person of Gower (named for an actual English poet, John Gower, c. 1330-1408, a friend of Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote an early version of the story), commandingly played here by Raphael Nash Thompson in a persona that exuded great dignity and candor. Opening the production atop a flight of steps upstage, standing as if framed in a celestial moongate, Thompson’s Gower intones his preamble to the play to the accompaniment of a group of musicians (Haley Bennett, John Blevins, Philip Varricchio, Jessica Wang, augmented by members of PigPen), garbed as itinerant minstrels and seated on the steps at Gower’s feet. Gower returns regularly, with or without the retinue (the musicians are mostly ensconced in a box above stage right), to fill in gaps in the story and move things along—a sort of Jacobean version of Our Town’s Stage Manager. (Nunn, who cut the Shakespeare/Wilkins text, used some of Wilkins’s The Painful Adventures of Pericles, his 1608 novelization of the play, to fill in storylines.) I’m not usually enamored of narrators on stage—they’re generally anti-theatrical—but the technique works here excellently, replacing windy passages and digressions to keep the cumbersome original somewhat streamlined. Furthermore, Nunn’s concept of Gower and Thompson’s performance made him more like a charming, trusty tour guide than a mere narrator. He knows what’s going to happen and keeps us in the picture with charm and gravitas. Besides, Thompson has the perfect voice for this persona: a deep, clear, steady baritone that says, ‘You can rely on this guy—he won’t mislead you.’
Robert Jones’s unit set starts with a black platform, the Scripps’s thrust, with the steps rising at the rear to a wall with a large round hole which can be closed or opened to reveal a backdrop that sets the scene—the rigging of a ship, the skulls and heads I mentioned above, the Temple of Diana, and so on. Nunn uses this bit of the set to great effect, particularly with Jones’s designs to enhance the visuals of the production. The hole, which I likened to a moongate (in fact, one of the backdrops is, indeed, the silvery moon, craters and all, filling the entire opening), sometimes doubles as an entrance and exit—but, except Diana’s soliloquy, no action takes place within the gate. The complex lighting scheme was designed by Stephen Strawbridge, creating a kind of circus dynamic on stage that fits well with the constant movement and the kaleidoscope of colors. Like a circus, Strawbridge uses follow spots in a number of scenes. As Nunn said: “total theatre.”
That upstage wall and the backdrops within the moongate opening have color, of course, but otherwise the Scripps is a 299-seat black box. But the panoply of color that helped hugely to make Nunn’s Pericles a spectacle was supplied by Constance Hoffman’s costumes. Not only were the actors dressed in all the colors of the rainbow (and then some), but to add a big helping of exoticism, each city had its own distinctive—and fantastical—style. I’m sure Hoffman based her designs at least partly on actual cultures from around the world, but its hardly significant whether the clothes were founded in historical reality; Nunn and Hoffman invented their own cultures of the Hellentistic diaspora for TFANA’s Pericles and the actors became part of it and invited the spectators in with them. And since the costumes were largely based on gowns, tunics, and robes, any time Nunn and Brooks staged one of the movement scenes, the costumes beautifully produced that kaleidoscope with elegance and grace. (I need to add a complimentary word here, too, about the stunning hair styles and wigs of Mareike Mohmand. I particularly liked the matching blond tresses of Simonides and Thaisa.)
The most marvelous thing about the physical production is that all the disparate aspects function together as a unified whole (the definition of total theater)—certainly the work of director Nunn. Each element fed from and informed the others, making the result so much more than the mere sum of the parts. The same, as I hinted earlier, is true of the acting. Pericles is the title role, of course, and the play is his journey—it’s what holds the play together. But at least in this production, he’s just the catalyst for an ensemble show that’s truly a magnificent theatrical achievement. Even though each of the scenes is a self-contained episode with only the merest cause-and-effect relationship with the others, Nunn and his cast create a single universe in which all these places and all these people exist simultaneously. This ensemble also handles the doubling and even tripling excellently, differentiating among the several roles each plays strongly enough that, disguised by the costume changes, it’s not always easy to see that later characters are played by actors seen earlier in other roles; if I didn’t recognize the player, I had to consult the program—and I still missed some.
Adding the PigPen Theatre members as the utility players to cover the servants, messengers, lords, knights, sailors, gentlemen, citizens, and pirates, not to mention the additional musicians, was inspired. I’m not familiar with the company, formed at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in Pittsburgh in 2007, but they proved themselves to be a versatile and multi-talented troupe. (According to their program listing, they produce original plays, appear in films, and record folk music.)
It’s difficult to single out individual performances from this cast of 22 for special praise, but a few of the company do distinguish themselves. I’ve already expressed my admiration for Thompson’s narrator-cum-guide, Gower. John Rothman as King Simonides, who becomes Pericles’ father-in-law, exudes an air of kindness and gentle authority; Rothman was positively avuncular. And wouldn’t you know it, but the villains get the most attention: Nina Hellman’s switch-hitting Dionyza, wife of the Tarsus governor, who goes from eternally grateful foster mom to evil stepmother from hell in a blink—Isherwood called her a “junior-league Lady Macbeth”)—and the sex-trafficking trio, Oberon K. A. Adjepong, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, and John Keating as the Pandar, the Bawd, and their servant, Boult; the last has the soul of Gollum as well as some of his moves while his master and mistress apparently have no souls at all, gleeful as they are to debase and degrade the hapless Marina—until she defeats them at every turn. At the pinnacle, of course, is Camargo’s prince. He’s stalwart and noble even as he flees Antiochus’ revenge, until the tragedies start piling up and then Camargo shows Pericles descending into despair until he climbs into that abyss of grief upon his return to Tarsus—only to rocket up again in two stages when he rediscovers his lost family. In fact, Camargo’s somewhat sober rendition of Shakespeare’s action hero grounds this hyperactive play so that it doesn’t quite spin apart from sheer entropy. Like all the Pericles company, Camargo handles the Jacobean verse smoothly and with authority—though there’s precious little notable poetry in this text.
Look, Pericles isn’t a deep play and it’ll never be mistaken for great drama. Ben Jonson called it a “mouldy Tale” in 1631 and poet John Dryden lambasted all of the Bard’s works, calling on audiences to “witness the lameness of their Plots: many of which . . . were made up of some ridiculous, incoherent story, which, in one Play many times took up the business of an Age. I suppose I need not name Pericles Prince of Tyre.” One of the 20th century’s most esteemed Shakespearean critics, G. Wilson Knight, deemed Pericles “merely a succession of happenings linked by sea-journeys.” We’ll soon find that some of our local critics had much the same opinion of this version, but Nunn and his creative and performing company have assembled a raucous and entertaining, not to mention well-executed, evening of theater. It sure beats all hell out of bear-baiting, bull-baiting, and cock-fighting!
Elisabeth Vincentelli put TFANA’s Pericles under the heading “Skip It” in the New York Post, explaining: “It was exciting to see what legendary director Trevor Nunn . . . would do with it, but his production for Theater for a New Audience is just as scattered as the play.” Vincentelli continued: “This is especially true of the acting, which is all over the map”; some of the cast, she reported, “are embarrassingly awful.” The Post reviewer added that the costumes “run the gamut from inspired to whaaaa?” In the Times, Christopher Isherwood, describing Pericles as a “complicated romance” with a “tumultuous story line,” names “a few of the woollier elements.” Nunn’s production at TFANA, however, is “largely well acted and vividly staged,” continued the Timesman. He dubbed the production “sleek-looking” and the costumes “extravagant.” The New York Daily News’s Joe Dziemianowicz, noting that “poetics take a backseat—way back—to plot” in Pericles, asserted, “To counteract the story bloat, [Nunn’s] production is sleek and spare—less can be more.”
Alexis Soloski of the U.S. edition of The Guardian, declaring, “To suspend one’s disbelief in regards to” the events recounted in Pericles “requires some pretty fancy rigging,” asserted, “Luckily Trevor Nunn . . . has it.” Soloski described the TFANA presentation as “a sumptuous and frequently spectacular production, enriched by setting, lighting, staging and music,” but remarked, “Other elements, like the wigs and headdresses . . . are frankly peculiar.” She found that “there is nearly always something lovely to look at or listen to,” including the “array of fabulous costumes and lavish props,” even though she felt that “[c]uts to the scripts, which sprawls to nearly three hours, could easily have been made and some of the more filmic elements, like the recurrent underscoring, are used profligately.” In sum, concluded Soloski, the director, cast, and design team “take ‘a song that old was sung’ and make it fresh and tuneful.” In amNewYork, Matt Windman called the play “a turbulent, often incoherent fantasy drama” which “is hardly in the same league as Shakespeare’s best work” and the production is “an unusually lavish affair,” including “rich, exotic-looking costumes.” “Alas,” continued Windman, “‘Pericles’ is not worthy of such large-scale production values.” The production “comes off as bloated and tiresome” even though it’s “visually sleek and persuasively acted”; even “Nunn’s edits to the text do not add much clarity.” Nevertheless, the ensemble is “fine” and Camargo “gives an unexpectedly poignant and vulnerable performance.”
The reviewer for the Brooklyn Paper reported, “‘Pericles’ is pretty much bonkers, and this new production leans right into it” and “feels . . . like [a] forerunner of an action movie.” It “fills every inch of the stage with vivid colors and original music,” continued the BP reviewer; the “narration and the music give the evening an archetypal, folk-tale feel.” The cast has “a fine sense of when to keep it simple and when to indulge in a little scenery-chewing for comic or melodramatic effect,” wrote the journalist, singling out Baker’s Antiochus and Hellman’s Dionyza for special notice. “The boldly colored costumes, live music, and clever design give the piece a bright freshness,” BP reported. “But there is so much journeying hither and yon, and so much parallel action in different locations, that any deeper themes get obscured,” though “there are plenty of incidental pleasures.” The Brooklyn writer concluded: “It hardly feels like Shakespeare, but it is thoroughly enjoyable.” In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Lore Croghan declared of TFANA’s Pericles: “We can sum it up in three words: Magic. Magic. Magic.” It’s “ a captivating production,” said Croghan, and “Nunn is a wizard” who “finds moments that he makes into Big Moments of great theatre.” Davey’s music is “enchanting” and “powerful aids in creating these moments.” The cast is “stellar,” wrote Croghan, and all give “fine performances.”
The capsule review of Pericles in the New Yorker declared, “The stage of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center is used to full magical, theatrical effect, with music, dance, and pageantry all contributing to the glow.” In New York magazine, Jesse Green dismissed the play as “constructed like a summer-vacation movie, with about as much coherence and consequence,” but the second half, supposedly written by the Bard, “sometimes seems like a test drive” for the later romances and, like those plays, “offers emotional depth and verbal gorgeousness.” Green suggested, “Nunn has thrown everything he knows how to do” into the production and it “all looks and sounds grand in the deep thrust arrangement” of the Scripps stage. “I’m not complaining,” admonished the man from New York. “Something has to be done with the weaker material in Pericles in order to make way for the stronger, and it might as well be cheesy.” Green hastened to add, “The good news is that Nunn has cast actors . . . who can serve the cheese but also the verse, so the beauty pops as much as the humor.”
Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman called Nunn’s Pericles a “ravishing production” that “may well be the best account of Shakespeare’s bad romance that you will ever have a chance to see.” Feldman asserted, “It is a testament to Nunn’s directorial mastery that he is able to fashion a coherent, often beautiful pageant from” what the reviewer called “a wrecked ship of a text.” The “capable” cast, headed by “an impressively noble” Camargo, “helps flesh out the play’s dry bones.” The man from TONY concluded: “Against all odds, the play is finally quite moving.” Under a “Bottom Line” slug affirming, “This ponderous take on one of the Bard’s lesser efforts fails to enchant,” the Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck quipped, “It’s been over 400 years now. Is it OK to stop pretending we care about Pericles, Prince of Tyre?” Scheck insisted that “the play is an unholy mess.” In addition, the HR reviewer complained that Nunn’s insertion of “generous amounts of song and dance” make “an already long evening feel even longer.” Scheck found that “the overall effect is curiously lifeless, due to both the diffuseness and unevenness of the material . . . and the familiar flourishes that afflict so many Shakespeare productions.” The HR writer felt that “Nunn is mightily straining for poeticism, when a light-hearted, winking approach might have produced more felicitous results” and his effort isn’t aided by a cast that “differs widely in effectiveness.” Scheck singled out several performers for praise: Casnoff, Swenson, Thompson, Rothman; but he found that Camargo “fails to project the charisma necessary to anchor the proceedings.”
Turning to the cyber press, I found the opinions similar to the ink-and-paper reviews, setting the production above the play. Tami Shaloum of Stage Buddy likens Pericles to “an amalgamation of . . . many Shakespearean plays,” naming The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and Midsummer as half-siblings for various aspects. “Everything from the costumes (Constance Hoffman) to the sound (Daniel Kluger) and set design (Robert Jones) is simple but distinctive,” asserted Shaloum—though I strongly disagree about the costumes, which I found anything but “simple.” Affirming that “it’s the acting that grounds the show,” the Stage Buddy declared, “All the actors demonstrate great skill with the language, emoting Shakespeare’s lines beautifully.” Shaloum praised the director, writing, “Nunn is extremely masterful at producing a show that feeds all the senses, employing bright and colorful visuals and a rich sound tapestry,” concluding, “Nunn and company make it come alive.” On TheaterMania, David Gordon dubbed the play “ghoulish” and acknowledged, “It can be a tough nut to crack.” With director Nunn at the helm, however, “the experience is oftentimes quite lovely.” Gordon reported that “his physical production is rollicking,” though he found “the acting is more of a mixed bag.” Nonetheless, the TM reviewer pronounced the production “particularly handsome.”
Theater Pizzazz’s JK Clarke pronounced TFANA’s Pericles, a “fabulous and unbelievable tale if there ever was one (in every sense of the term),” “a very satisfying evening.” Clarke asserted, “It is only through” director Nunn’s “elaborate and elegant staging that Pericles becomes a palatable play.” Disparaging the acting, particularly of Camargo (“moody and melodramatic”), the Theater Pizzazz reviewer stated, “The real saviors of the production, however, are Robert Jones for his absolutely stunning set . . . [and] Stephen Strawbridge’s luscious lighting,” which Clarke acknowledged “are rivaled only by Constance Hoffman’s magnificent and elegant costumes.” Clarke’s bottom line was that the TFANA company “have taken an ostentatious play . . . and turned it into a lovely and entertaining production that’s as worth seeing as any great play.” On CurtainUp, Deirdre Donovan asserted that in TFANA’s “smart” production, the actors are all “assuming roles.” (Donovan appears to mean by this that they “disappear into their roles”; for some reason she seems to have expected them to chew the scenery or, as she put it, “barnstorm,” as she dwelled on this aspect of the performance fairly extensively. It’s certainly not an anticipation I have when going to see a production featuring pros at a company like TFANA or, say, the Signature Theatre.) The CU review-writer praised the acting of Crovatin’s Thaisa and Englert’s Marina, with “shout-outs” to Adjepong, Chevannes, and Keating for bringing “comic flavor” to the brothel scenes; she also complimented the sets of Jones, the lighting of Strawbridge, and the costumes of Hoffman.
Huffington Post’s Michael Giltz seems to have made a mistake: he decided to read Pericles, Prince of Tyre before seeing Nunn’s version at TFANA. He declared that “it’s not good” in advance. So much for expectations. “Still,” he acknowledged, “it could be fun and apparently has been rehabilitated in recent years, to a degree.” Nunn, however, “makes no case here for the show’s potential and indeed this production in particular gets worse as it goes along.” Reinforcing his disappointment, Giltz asked, “[C]an one mess up a bad play?” His answer: “Nunn comes awfully close.” HP’s review-writer suggested that “it’s as if Nunn were adapting The Scarlet Pimpernel but treating it like Macbeth,” although he allowed (rather begrudgingly, to my ear) that “more than a few cast members make their mark.” Like other reviewers, Giltz singled out Camargo’s Pericles, Swenson’s Cleon, Hellman’s Dionyza, Rothman’s Simonides, and Thompson’s Gower, along with several others from the ensemble, but disparaged the work of both Crovatin as Thais and Englert as Marina. On top of this deficiency, Giltz found that “Nunn has shown far too much respect to a work that at best might be amiable. The play slows and slows . . . when we’d prefer they gallop to the finish.” While Jones’s sets create “some fine effects,” Hoffman’s costumes “are disastrous . . ., unintentionally silly when they’re not simply unflattering and distracting.” The reviewer even pronounced, “The music is a mess, as well. . ., underlining every emotion in italics.” “At the end,” Giltz asserted, “the narrator gains unwelcome laughter when reassuring us the show is almost over”—although I didn’t hear a similar response the night I saw the play. Giltz singled out for opprobrium the very dumb shows—the starving citizens of Tarsus, the jousting tournament in Pentapolis, which he said “extend just a little past our breaking point”—that I thought were marvelously theatrical.
Well, as my late father loved to say: De gustibus non disputandum est—There’s no accounting for taste. In other words, To each his own.