Fiasco Theater is one of my favorite local New York companies. Over the years, I’ve seen their productions of The Knight of the Burning Pestle (April 2023), Measure for Measure (2015), Twelfth Night (2017), and Two Gentlemen of Verona (2015). I missed their much-praised Cymbeline, but basically they are one of the local NYC companies that I’ll buy a ticket for whatever they play – even on a Friday night with a looming snowstorm!
Their show this winter, Pericles, isn’t everybody’s favorite Shakespeare, but it very much is mine – shipwrecks! pirates! crazy plot twists! magic! perhaps the most complex geographic itinerary (Tyre -> Antioch -> Tarsus -> Pentapolis -> more Tarsus -> Mytilene -> Ephesus) in all of Shakespeare! Even the medieval poet Gower gets a speaking part (and, in this production, a guitar). I’ve written about the heroine Marina, born during a tempest in the middle of the play, as the most aquatic and blue humanities-ish of Shakespeare’s characters.
So I was the perfect audience for Fiasco’s Pericles, which I saw at the Classic Stage Company’s home theater on East 13th St downtown. And while I did love it, as I always love the high spirits, musicality, and sheer liveliness of Fiasco’s performance style – well, a couple of things they tried didn’t seem quite to work. Perhaps because their Knight of the Burning Pestle, which I saw with students last spring, was such a triumph, I felt that a couple of things the company was trying got in their own way.
A central gambit was passing the role of Pericles himself around to multiple cast members over the course of the play. The program lists Noah Brody, Paco Tolson, Devin Haqq, and Tatiana Wechsler as playing “Pericles and others.” I usually like that gambit, which I’ve encountered a few times before, above all in Dziecki Theatre’s extraordinary Makbet, which I loved so much when I saw it performed in a shipping container in 2018 that I brought them to our seminar room at St. John’s in 2019. But perhaps because Pericles shifts its scenes and its theatrical modes so often – if we’re in Antioch, it’s classical incest tragedy, in Pentapolis, a medieval tournament, Ephesus has a seedy faux-Elizabethan underworld, &c – the shifting of the actors jarred a bit. I love the performers – perhaps Tatiana Wechshler, cross-cast as the wicked Dionyza who tries to murder Marina, gave her Pericles the most interesting spin, though Devin Haqq’s final Pericles was also stately and powerful.
The other gambit, which by now I think of as a Fiasco trademark since their gloriously sea-shanty-filled Twelfth Night, which rivals Pestle as my favorites of their productions, is music. Since Marina restores her father’s identity through music in the play’s almost-climactic scene (they still have to make one last trip to Ephesus to restore her mother), the company’s emphasis on music seemed a likely fit. Perhaps I caught them on a bad night – Andy Grotelueschen, who made gloriously high-spirited runs as good king Simonides and Bolt the pandar, mentioned to the woman sitting next to me before the show started that the show is just out of previews and they are still “changing some things” – but the music felt a bit off to me. Ben Steinfeld’s guitar-troubadour Gower was fun and a bit goofy, which I think fits the old-fashioned tetrameter Shakespeare wrote for the part. But a few other songs, especially one that converted Marina’s lament on her nurse Lychordia’s grave (4.1) into something like a show tune, didn’t really fit for me. I’m very rarely a fussy professor – by all means change the script, that’s what it’s there for! – but I winced a few times.
Maybe Pericles, especially compared with comic gems like Twelth Night and even the bizarre but structurally coherent Pestle, is just too wayward for the regular Fiasco treatment? Or maybe I was worried about the snowstorm, which didn’t start until after my long drive back to CT anyway, despite not thinking I was?
Fiasco’s Pericles is up in its cozy downtown theater through March 24! Go see it! Tell me what you think!