How it’s New York: The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is one of the finest theatre companies in the Tri-State area, and pulls actors and audiences from the city too.
How it’s (Irish) English: “Pericles” is one of William Shakespeare’s late plays, a fantasy. Shakespeare is English, but the fantasy elements have a touch of the Celt about them.
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s “Pericles” is everything its creator, William Shakespeare, must have hoped the play could be: colorful. Fantastical. Funny. Exciting. Engaging.
It’s altogether magical, from the opening tableau with the goddesses of Diana to its final moments. Director Brian B. Crowe’s brilliant and bold production of a piece often dismissed huffily as a “late romance” by reviewers and scholars demonstrates that The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is firmly world-class. One can only feel sorry for the New Yorkers too timid to make the 25-mile journey to Madison.
Written in 1607 or thereabouts, some people speculate that the play is not wholly by Shakespeare. It did not appear in the “First Folio,” and, as Crowe writes in his notes, modern productions are based on an incomplete quarto printing of the play and a version by playwright George Wilkins. None of this matters much, but it can’t be denied that like “Cymbeline” and “The Winter’s Tale,” “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” feels fabulistic. It’s not because it’s set in a far-away, ancient land– so is “Julius Caesar,” after all.
But in this play we have a prince who goes adventuring, is nearly killed in a “daughter or your life” contest (no need to explain this, I hope), impresses a princess, goes home… and there’s a missing daughter along the way, mistaken identity, people presumed dead who come to life. A
director who can only think “Shakespeare,” bringing out the verse, can turn this into a dull peregrination. But Crowe knows what he’s doing: his spectacle is funny, beautiful and heartwarming. The production has the color and the heart of the best of Disney animations, complete with a a heroine for whom animated birds would chirp, and mice would sew dresses in the person of Lindsey Kyler as Marina. The honest, sweet ingenue is a tough role to pull off — Laura Osnes does in “Cinderella” on Broadway– but it can easily come across as simpering. Kyler’s eyes are so huge they seem unreal, like an animé come to life, and she brings a tender quality to the role as well.
In Shakespeare’s tale, Prince Pericles of Tyre (Jon Barker) woos Hesperides of Antioch (Kelsey Burke), but when he figures out the riddle of the evil King Antiochus (Andrew Criss), which is that she and her father have an incestuous relationship, he has to flee. He stops off in Tarsus, and helps the people there with their famine, and then it’s on to Pentapolis, where he is shipwrecked, rescued by fishermen, and ends up impressing the jolly King Simonides (Criss again) and marrying the lovely Thaisa (Maria Tholl). But on the way back he’s hit with another shipwreck. Thaisa dies giving birth, and is thrown overboard (OK, buried at sea). But she’s not so dead after all, and becomes a votress to Diana in Ephesus.
And Pericles leaves his beautiful baby princess with Cleon (Clark Scott Carmichael, who was so good in Irish Rep’s “Freedom of the City,” which we reviewed here, and whom we interviewed for The Montclair Times here), and his queen Dionyza (Jacqueline Antaramian). But there’s a hitch: Marina’s sooo sweet, soooo pretty, that Dionyza’s duaghter Philoten (Jensen Austria Olaya) is overshadowed. In the fairy tale realm, that’s never any good, and it isn’t here either, but since we’re firmly in a legend, Marina doesn’t die. She ends up in a bordello in Mytilene, where she hilariously converts horny guys by the impressive power of her speech.
The set by Brian J. Ruggaber is gorgeous, beginning with columns and an ice-blue backdrop, like something out of “Frozen.” We’re in the temple of Diana, where the goddess, played by Antaramian, is attended by three priestesses, Corey Tazmania, Meg Kiley Smith, and Amaya Murphy.Their hand gestures and broken deliverz give the introduction the proper ritualistic, odd, and engaging appeal. They observe, repeat lines of early scenes. Later they come in through aisles, appear unexpectedlz. These are just two of Crowe’s many successful inventions. Another is the clever double-casting: as Diana, Antaramian is noble, cold; as Dionyza, she’s the Evil Queen, sexy and snarky. As Antiochus, Criss is menacing, frightening; as noble Simonides, he’s jolly, having fun tricking Pericles into thinking he’s not good enough while giving the audience asides such as “I applaud his actions” that show it’s all for sport, letting us in on the joke, and then as Pandar, a pimp in Mytilene, he’s hysterically funny in his frustration. Along with a skill at pace and tone that’s remarkable, veering from low comedy to sincere scenes without ever losing us, Crowe also creates gorgeous pictures. One moment, a woman is a priestess, the next, she’s a masthead on Pericles’ ship. Memorable. In the title role, Jon Barker displays a true hero’s courage, smarts and nobility; when his prince grieves, he makes us grieve too. As his bride Thaisa, Tholl shows spunk right out of a ’40s movie, and Kyler manages to seem like she actually is a young teen. An animated bird would settle on her shoulder. John Hickock plays noble Helicanus with gravity and dignity.
Jayoung Yoon’s costumes are perfection, like a cross between “The Gift of the Magi” and Hans Christian Anderson, and the fights,
choreographed by Rick Sordelet, show intricacy and skill– as well as advancing the story. Andrew Hungerford’s saturated lights let us know what climate we are in and when.
Near the end of the play, a very depressed Pericles is reunited with his daughter he realizes that he must smell bad, since he’s been moping unchanged for awhile. He sniffs his pits. That’s Barker and Crowe. But the line,,
“Give me fresh garments”
is Shakespeare. Together, they work pure magic.
Later, after reuniting with the so-not-dead Thaisa, he cries,
“No more, you gods!”
and the audience laughs with him, as they wipe away tears. It may be enough for Pericles. But it’s just right for us.