Why would Trevor Nunn, director of the musicals Les Miserables and Cats, choose one of Shakespeare’s least-revived plays as the first he’s staged with an American company, for an audience in Brooklyn? One answer may be that “Pericles” was the Les Miz and Cats of its day, which is to say, an immense crowd pleaser in 1608, one of the Bard’s biggest hits. Nunn honors that legacy in the Theater for a New Audience production of “Pericles” at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, with a gorgeous, swashbuckling pageant, featuring – in order of delight — Constance Hoffman’s parade of fancy and fanciful character-revealing costumes; Shaun Davey’s tuneful, period-appropriate music performed by the splendid roly-poly musicians of the PigPen Theatre Co who portray sundry sailors and servants as well; lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge’s dreamy hues of blue and vivid orange; and a sexy hero in Christian Camargo, who transforms through his many travels, trials and tribulations into a forlorn figure, until the miraculous and moving happy ending. There is also a large cast that is certainly game and largely (but not entirely) winning.
Click on any photograph by Gerry Goodstein to see it enlarged
Now, yes, within a few years after Shakespeare’s death, “Pericles” was being dismissed as a “mouldy tale” (Ben Jonson, 1629) with a “ridiculous, incoherent story” (John Dryden, 1672.) The adventures surely pile up and pile on. Pericles must face two different kings offering contests for the hands of their daughters, and endure various shipwrecks, one of which (apparently but not actually) kills his wife and forces Pericles to abandon his newly born daughter Marina. Sixteen years later, we see that Marina has grown into such a beauty that her foster mother, a queen, wants to have her murdered for outshining her own daughter; luckily, before that happens, Marina is kidnapped by pirates and sold into a brothel. You get the idea. (A more complete synopsis is available in the program)
Even Shakespeare seems to acknowledge that he goes too far, or at least for too long; at one point (some 150 minutes into this production) he has the poet Gower, our narrator, assure the audience that the play is almost over:
Now our sands are almost run. More a little, and then dumb.
Many have said that “Pericles” has little of the depth and lyricism of Shakespeare’s better-known work. Nunn seems to agree. After all, although the former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, Nunn had never directed “Pericles” before. He’d staged 34 of Shakespeare’s plays before this one, which may say something. What says more is that Nunn takes great liberties with the text.
I noticed this because, when I was a schoolboy, I spent all summer working as an usher at a theater that was presenting “Pericles,” and wound up reciting parts of it in my sleep – or in any case when I woke up. These many years later, I was thrilled in anticipation of the opening verse of the play that would be rendered by the deep-voiced Raphael Nash Thompson as Gower:
To sing a song that old was sung,
From ashes ancient Gower is come;
Assuming man’s infirmities,
To glad your ear, and please your eyes.
But these were not the first words in Nunn’s “Pericles.” The director switched in some later verse for the beginning, made this first verse part of a song, but without the last two lines, which he completely eliminated from the script. I’ll confess that this sort of slicing and splicing didn’t especially glad my ear. But I didn’t wind up minding, for (although Gower no longer promises to do so) the show did please my eyes.
Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Trevor Nunn; Music Composed by Shaun Davey
Scenic Designer: Robert Jones; Costume Designer: Constance Hoffman; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Daniel Kluger; Choreographer: Brian Brooks; Props: Eric Reynolds; Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth; Vocal Coach: Andrew Wade; Dramaturg: Jonathan Kalb; Casting: Deborah Brown; Hair/Wig & Makeup Designer: David Bova; Music Director: Charles Reuter; Associate Director: Illana Stein
Cast: Christian Camargo, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Earl Baker Jr., Philip Casnoff, Gia Crovatin, Lilly Englert, Nina Hellman, Zachary Infante, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, John Keating, Ian Lassiter, Sam Morales, Raphael Nash Thompson, Michael Siberry, Will Swenson,and PigPen Theatre Co.; Also Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi and Dan Weschler
Running time: Almost three hours, including intermission
Tickets: $75 to 85
“Pericles” is scheduled to run through March 27