Face it: as much as we love Shakespeare, there are some plays that look like utter chaos on the page, cobbled together like a 5-year-old’s collage with no rhyme or reason. We skip over them, on the way to something more, well, readable and comprehensible.
What we miss, of course, is that we’ve never seen these gems performed. And we should be eternally grateful that Staunton’s American Shakespeare Center knows exactly what’s required to bring these seemingly odd plays vividly to life—so vividly and hilariously, you leave the theater wondering why on earth nobody else has touched it.
Rounding out the ASC’s fall repertory, from their Actor’s Renaissance Season, is Pericles, a case study in chaos according to plan, a seemingly hot mess that makes perfect comedic sense once you put it on the boards. The acting company clearly relishes this material and mines it afresh for every possible laugh line, every possible opportunity for cheap schtick, slapstick, you name it—and it is a glorious thing to behold.
Leading the cast is Mauricio Miranda as the title character, Prince Pericles of Tyre, whose many travels and travails take us all over the Mediterranean world, in his restless search for true love, with a healthy dose of loss and happy reunions along the way. Miranda (who makes a fine Ferdinand in the other two productions, The Tempest and Une Tempête) is utterly endearing as the hero of our play, a terminally awkward teenager at first, but one who grows into a wise adulthood tinged with great sadness.
One of the many highlights here is Pericles’ courtship with Princess Thaisa, played to perfection by Meg Rodgers. They reenact that most touchingly awkward of teenage romances, with each of them taking turns making fools of themselves, to the delight of all. It is Thaisa’s (seeming) death in childbirth, in the midst of a ravenous storm, that will plunge Pericles into deep grief, made all the more poignant because we’ve seen their first meeting.
The play itself is notorious for violating just about every rule of Hollywood dramaturgy—it begins, like, on page one, with the “Big Reveal” of a royal incestuous relationship in Antioch, the discovery of which forces young Pericles to flee for his life. (The opposite of Chinatown, in other words.)
Where on earth do you go from there? Plenty of places, it turns out. And with the commanding Annabelle Rollinson as our Chorus, guiding us from one port of call to the next, the travelogue is as richly rewarding as anything you’ll see this season. And it ends with one of those rare emotional moments in live theatre, a tearful reunion punctuated by belly laughs. The tears and laughter literally happen together, and you are rewarded with a happy ending, explicitly cooked up just for your pleasure.
With star turns everywhere you look it’s grossly unfair to pick and choose—but what the heck, here goes: James Keegan’s comic timing is perfect as Simonides, Thais’ father, who only pretends to rail at Pericles while virtually guaranteeing that the boy will soon become his son-in-law. Sam Saint-Ours, the ASC’s musical director, cleverly accompanies Pericles on mandolin during the opening “riddle” scene (with that nasty big reveal I just mentioned), but he then morphs into a doddering Helicanus, who somehow manages to remain standing, while running Tyre, during Pericles’ many travels.
Meanwhile back in Ephesus, Summer England gives us the sauciest Bawd ever, with an over-the-top southern accent, and we watch with great amusement as she tries, and fails, to turn Pericles’ daughter, Princess Marina—the impressive Corrie Green—into a working girl. Marina’s reunion with her father (did I mention the play covers, like, 20 years?) is touching, and Miranda’s transition from misery to joy is well done.
The show’s soundtrack has its witty moments, beginning with Brandon Carter taking on the Talking Heads classic song about displacement, “This Must Be the Place,” in the preshow, as well as touches of Don Gibson and Dolly Parton (“Sea of Heartbreak,” of course, and “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”) during intermission.
Bottom line: if it’s by Shakespeare, and it’s performed by the ASC, you need to see it done. Because it’s done right, end of story. This Pericles is an instant classic, and well worth the drive, the tolls, whatever it takes to get you to Staunton.
Pericles plays only through November 20, in repertory with The Tempest and Une Tempête. Get busy, and get tickets!
Running Time: About two hours, with one intermission.
Pericles, a part of American Shakespeare Center’s Actor’s Renaissance Season, plays through November 20, 2022, in repertory with Une Tempête and The Tempest. All performances are at the Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 South Market Street, Staunton, VA. For information and tickets ($27–$60, with an option to sign up for the pay-what-you-will club), visit americanshakespearecenter.com.
Credits for Pericles are online here (click on “cast” and on “artistic team”).
COVID Safety: American Shakespeare Center strongly encourages patrons to mask when possible. ASC’s complete COVID-19 Safety Visitor’s Guide is here.
A raw and razor-sharp ‘Une Tempête,’ in rep at American Shakespeare Center
A vision of ‘The Tempest’ for all, in rep at American Shakespeare Center
(reviews by Andrew Walker White, November 4, 2022)