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Pericles: Born in a Tempest

[A delayed blog-review: I saw this show on Nov 17, just before the first round of holiday madness. It’s now long since closed, but the performance was inventive and moving enough for me to want to keep an eye on these two companies going forward.]

One good reason to keep seeing 400-year-old plays is because they speak to human needs. I don’t believe in timeless genius, but I like 21st-century productions of Shakespeare that eschew false authenticity in order to build something distinctive.

In a little upper West Side theater space upstairs in a church on W. 86th, Hunger & Thirst Theater and the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project played a wonderfully inverted and compressed Pericles, with a cast of only five and an elaborate frame narrative. I walked out of the small space abuzz with feeling, and humming the homeward bound shanty, Leave Her Johnny, traditionally sung by sailors being paid off after a long voyage:

For the voyage is done, and the winds don’t blow

Fishermen

And it’s time for us to leave her

The opening scene

The song’s melancholy doesn’t capture the same feeling of redemption that the reunions of Pericles with long-lost daughter and wife generate at the play’s end — but this production wasn’t really after redemption, at least not the wish-fulfillment part of it, and besides they cut the return of Thaisa. Instead, the modern-dress frame tale explored the death of an old sea captain named John Gower on the same stormy night when his grand-daughter was born. Going through the old man’s things, his daughter and son-in-law find a journal which provides them a script for the story of Pericles, “a song that old was sung.” The force of the inset performance of (most of) Shakespeare’s play reconciled the family to loss and birth, instead of substituting the miraculous return of “the voice of dead Thaisa” (5.3).

I liked the twist, and I liked the company: they were funny in the right places, a compelling mix of goofy and dramatic during the storms, and tender throughout.

My favorite staging-element was the repetition of the opening scene: old man John Gower opened the play in a wheelchair grumping at his daughter. That same scene was reprised in the inset narrative, when Marina found Pericles on board his ship. While the “real” daughter had not been able to reach her dying father in the opeing, the “fictional” Marina coaxed language out of Pericles with music.

I’ll keep an eye on these performers. And I’ll think more about how the fantasy-endings of romance, in which so many lost things return, might speak to human losses beyond the stage.

 

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