Bard on

Undermain's Pericles is a prince of a show

More often than not, I think Harold Bloom's a pompous ass -- except when it comes to his complaints about live Shakespeare, and then, he's spot on. In his book The Invention of the Human, Bloom insists -- as I do, which, of course, makes him right this one time out -- that people either do too little or not enough with the Bard. Bloom declares that he'd rather read Shakespeare all by his lonesome than see the playwright performed by hapless humans.

The perverse exception? Pericles, Prince of Tyre, which is rarely staged because of its snaky rhythms and seemingly disjointed series of Herculean trials. (And, perhaps more important, its authorship is perhaps the most hotly disputed in Shakespeare's canon, probably because academics are eager to disassociate the hallowed dramatist from what sometimes reads like a Ray Harryhausen script in meter.) Bloom thought that what was greasy medieval mutton stew on the page became, at the very least, yummy, fatty junk food behind the footlights, but only if spiced with appropriate energy and ingenuity.

Indeed, as Undermain Theatre artistic director Katherine Owens proves in her co-production with The Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, Pericles, Prince of Tyre is frolicsome and luridly bottom-shelf precisely because it's so...well, un-Shakespeare-like. The title character's daughter alone is birthed in a hurricane, kidnapped by pirates, and sold into service at a bordello, which she thwarts with sheer gutsiness. You almost wish Owens and her designers and cast had edged this material into its goofier possibilities: The production looks and is often performed in a stately manner, with long, fluttery veils surrounding the stage, courtesy of set designer Russell Parkman, and several key performances are delivered with crisp if too-reverent Fakespearean (to quote David Sedaris) demeanor.

Suzanne Thomas and Khary Payton are put through a Shakespearean ringer in Katherine Owens' stately but goofy production.
Suzanne Thomas and Khary Payton are put through a Shakespearean ringer in Katherine Owens' stately but goofy production.

But in the same show, there are moments of goosebump-raising ritual and snivelling, dirty-minded lunacy that keep your mind from wandering back to the grocery list for tomorrow's shopping trip. If Pericles the script makes altogether too many stops on its sightseeing tour of the pre-Christian world's terrors and ecstasies to be a satisfying piece of theater, at least the Undermain production paints some vivid vistas along the way.

So much happens in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and because it is all new to so many of us who know only the most famous tragedies, comedies, and histories of Shakespeare, I'd recommend you familiarize yourself with the basic plot beforehand. It's not terribly complex, as most seafaring epic poems aren't, but you may spend a lot of time wondering, "Wait, now why is there a price on his head?" or thinking, "Hold on a minute, I thought she was dead." Truthfully, even when you figure out what prompts some of the events and reversals, they don't make much sense, but at least you won't spend a lot of time cogitating and miss the next episode in this quasi-Biblical serial.

And I'd certainly recommend checking out the Undermain's Web site (www.undermain.com), but not for a better sense of the perambulating Pericles. The cast photos, Owens' production journal, and something called "The Pericles Dramaturgy Project," with free-form but genuinely thought-provoking insights from artist and Undermain collaborator Nick Manhattan, are interesting if obfuscating. Fact is, you get the sense that all this talk about the play being a metaphor for alchemy is an attempt, however out-there, to impose logic on an ultimately illogical series of disasters.

But that's part of the fun of Pericles, in which the title character (played by Khary Payton) journeys as a young man to a land where King Antiochus (Dennis Millegan) drops him in deep shit by trying to make him guess a riddle whose answer (the king is schtupping his own daughter) will bring about certain death. Pericles resists the trap and returns to his own domain, which the enraged Antiochus has promised to invade. Apparently to throw off some of the pressure, Pericles begins a worldwide journey by sea that eventually finds him winning the hand of Thaisa (Laurel Whitsett), who is mistakenly tossed overboard in a coffin full of spices after she gives birth to their daughter Marina (Suzanne Thomas). Suffice it to say that a lifetime of suffering by Pericles is salved by the 11th-hour return of his wife and daughter, who must overcome a few tribulations themselves (especially kidnap victim and compulsory rent girl Marina) to get back to where they once belonged.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is not going to make it to the top of the revival list at nationwide summer Shakespeare festivals anytime soon, but it's enough of an intriguing curiosity to stay afloat for two hours, thanks to Katherine Owens' patented way with fomenting theatrical mood. Guitar and flute and drum produce a spritely but eerie combination thanks to composers Nick Brisco (ex of Fever in the Funkhouse) and Bruce DuBose, who offer live accompaniment.

The angel-faced Khary Payton makes a Pericles who rarely tires until the very end, but does seem duly wounded by each successive misery. He makes nobility palatable, while Cameron Cobb, Newton Pittman, and Anthony Ramirez disgrace themselves in hilarious and gratifying ways playing everything from pirates to fishermen to pimps. I would have liked to see the show tuned more in their smelly, horny key, but as it is now, you can toss off the burden of high cultchah that people so often assume before a Shakespearean production and appreciate Pericles, Prince of Tyre for the gangly, loopy, cheerfully drunken stride it appears to have been written in.

 
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