I had never seen Shakespeare’s Pericles before today’s matinee at the Guthrie Theater, but I was plenty familiar with its latter-day regional descendants: tales of love, loss, and adventure on the stormy seas.
In our case, that would be the Unsalted Sea. In shows like Ten November and Riding the Wind, Lake Superior performs the same function that the Mediterranean Sea performs in Pericles: a vast and mysterious space in which, whether for good or ill, our fortunes are in the hands of the gods.
Appropriately, there’s a certain shambling quality to the Guthrie’s production — newly appointed leader Joseph Haj’s first show in the director’s chair. Pericles is a play rooted in oral tradition and community rituals, and when Armando Durán steps on stage as the narrator Gower, there’s just a whiff of retired taxidermist Clifford Wooley looking up from his campfire in Red, White and Blaine. “Oh…didn’t see you there!”
Gower introduces us to Pericles (Wayne T. Carr), a young prince of Tyre who for complicated reasons needs to get out of town for a while; he takes to sea, and after the requisite tossing and turning, washes up on the shores of Pentapolis. There, he has a meet-cute with Princess Thaisa (Brooke Parks) and wham, bam, thank you ma’am, they’re wed and the princess is great with child. Nothing is ever easy, so Pericles has to bid farewell to first his wife and then his newborn child. What will become of him?
This all unfolds in a series of often-amusing episodes featuring such stock characters as the trusty counsellor (Michael J. Hume), the protective-yet-loving father-in-law (Jeffrey Blair Cornell), and the bespectacled doc (Barzin Akhavan). Later, we meet the jealous mother-in-law (Parks again), the dissolute young pol with a heart of gold (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend), and the wicked madam (Hume again, cast in drag in a wince-worthy decision) who tries to sell the virginity of our heroine (Jennie Greenberry).
The comedy plays well, due to Haj’s trust that we don’t need to be smacked across the head to realize when a character is being comic; the laughs swell from gestures and timing rather than from big clumsy gags. (The production was created in collaboration with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Washington, D.C.’s Folger Theatre; having played at both venues, the show is as tight as a Marine’s bedsheet.)
The trick, then, is to pivot to sincere emotion — particularly a challenge at the Guthrie, where audiences tend to come well-contented and ready to follow a production right off the rails if a director lets a show get too goofy too quickly. That tendency, disappointingly prevalent in the Dowling era, is fortunately curbed here. With few exceptions (Thaisa’s character, whose comical awkwardness goes over the top in her first scenes, comes to mind), Haj keeps the play’s tragic undercurrents close to the surface throughout.
He’s aided by Jan Chambers’s majestic set, enhanced by Francesca Talenti’s graceful video design; and particularly by Jack Herrick’s score, played by a small contingent of musicians and heard throughout the show. Setting the Bard’s verse, Herrick excels at jovial numbers like the fishermen’s song and nails the Big Ballad that becomes the show’s theme. His instrumentals, if a little on the glossy side (sighing synths, poignantly plucked guitar notes), are invaluable in setting the show’s tone — including during the concluding scene, which had the man in front of me honking into his hanky.
The first months of the calendar year tend to be when theater companies, seeking an antidote to sugary holiday fare, drop their most challenging shows. Pericles, on the other hand, is a warm and welcome escape from the winter blahs. This charming production, full of portents, itself portends well for Haj’s tenure as the Guthrie’s artistic director.