Chicago Theatre Review
Looking For a Hero
Pericles – Shakespeare Theatre
Any play that begins with “Once upon a time…” signals that it’s going to be a folk tale, a heroic myth or perhaps even a fable. “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” along with only three of Shakespeare’s other plays, is labeled “romantic,” a synonym for “adventurous,” which this production certainly is. Written around 1608, during Shakespeare’s latter years of prolific penmanship, he created this play in the wake of some of his finest tragedies. Along with his “Two Noble Kinsmen,” the play wasn’t even originally included in Shakespeare’s First Folio, although it’s now accepted among his canon of 36 other plays. During the Bard’s own lifetime, “Pericles” was one of the playwright’s most popularly produced plays, although many scholars believe that Shakespeare only composed the second half of it.
Told by a narrator (a series of storytellers, in this production), the saga of Prince Pericles unfolds as a series of related episodes. The first adventure is reminiscent of mythology’s The Riddle of the Sphinx. In it, the Prince tries to outwit the King of Antioch in order to win the hand of his beautiful daughter. When Pericles discovers the riddle’s dark secret, he flees for his life before his severed head can join the display of others mounted on poles within the courtyard.
The next episode features the kindly Prince bringing shiploads of corn to the famine-riddled kingdom of Tarsus. However, Pericles turns down their offer of shelter when he realizes that Antiochus is still in pursuit of his life.
As the Fates would have it, a storm drives Pericles onshore at Pentapolis, where knights are battling for the hand of Princess Thaisa, King Simonides‘ beautiful daughter. Not only does Pericles win the tournament but he also wins the heart of the fair maiden. The two are married and expecting their first child when news comes that Antiochus has died, making it safe now for Pericles and his bride to return to his homeland. During a storm at sea, Thaisa gives birth to a daughter, Marina, but the Princess dies in childbirth. Despite Pericles‘ protests, the crew insists that his wife’s body be buried at sea. The grief-stricken Prince sails back to Tarsus to entrust the care of his baby daughter to King Cleon and his Queen Dionyza.
The years pass and, evocative of events found in the Grimm Brothers’ “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the jealous Queen Dionyza hires a huntsman to take the young Marina into the forest and kill her. During this episode, Marina is rescued but kidnapped by pirates, who sell her to a brothel in Myteline. When Pericles returns for his daughter, Dionyza tells him Marina has died. Unbeknownst to the Prince, not only is his daughter still alive, but his wife had been brought back to life by a magician, upon discovering her coffin washed ashore. All three are finally reunited by the end of this exciting, romantic adventure, and they live out the remainder of their lives together in happiness.
This hero story is filled with sword battles, hand-to-hand combat, deception, love, passion and ultimate justice and retribution. It features familiar elements found in Shakespeare’s other plays but it’s often more suggestive of an exciting Cecil B. DeMille movie. David H. Bell has directed this heroic saga with all the swash and buckle of an Errol Flynn film, while featuring the passion and intrigue found in a romantic epic. Especially in Act II, the language is poetic and picturesque enough to satisfy most Shakespeare devotees, but its plot is filled with so many events and fascinating characters that it will speak to most every theatergoer.
Mr. Bell’s history of directing and appearing in musicals serves him well in this endeavor, because the play’s storytelling quality is similar to that found in musical comedy. With so many moments of melody and choreographed movement, fights included, this comic drama appeals to every taste. Scott Davis, Aaron Rhyne and Jesse Klug have worked together creating a most impressive and versatile set, moving projection and scintillating lighting design that propels this production from location to location. Henry Marsh’s original music (directed by Ethan Deppe) and James Savage’s impressive sound design adds much to the telling of this tale, as do Nan Cibula-Jenkins‘ gorgeous, mythology-inspired costumes and Melissa Veal’s wigs and makeup designs.
Every actor brings his A-game to this production. In the title role, Canadian classical actor (and Jeff Award-winner) Ben Carlson returns to CST in a heartfelt, empathetic performance that should earn him additional accolades. As Pericles, the actor ages, from brash, young Prince to broken, inconsolable middle-aged man, with energy, humor, grace and poignance. Lovely Lisa Berry’s Thaisa is eloquent and grand, as befitting a queen. Her reunion with Pericles is tearful and stunning. Cristina Panfilio wins the audience’s love and sympathy as Pericle’s ill-fated daughter, Marina. Maintaining her dignity while fighting for her virtue and her life, Ms. Panfilio is wonderful and most memorable. Ross Lehman, playing several roles, brings a shipload of welcomed comedy to his portrayals of the Fisherman, Cerimon and Pandar. Sean Fortunato is appropriately egocentric and smarmy as evil King Antiochus, but just as likable and noble as romantic hero Lysimachus. Kevin Gudahl shines as kindly King Simonides and his humorous asides are delightful. The always lovely Lia Mortensen brings and added depth to her portrayal of the wicked Queen Dionyza and Ora Jones makes a nasty, conniving Bawd. Derrick Trumbly stands out in his many ensemble roles, particularly as Boult.
This adventure saga is told in a production that opens with Once Upon a Time and ends with Happily Ever After. It’s a true mythic tale with a stalwart adventurer at its helm. Audiences, particularly younger theatergoers, will love all the action and spectacle, while older audiences will revel in the play’s romance and poetry. This is a magnificent production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-produced plays, presented with pageantry and finesse by a skilled director and his multitalented company of actors and theatre artists. A series of stories linked together by a winning hero, this shining saga has something for everyone.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 9-January 18 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in their Courtyard theater space on Navy Pier, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 312-595-5600 or by visiting www.chicagoshakes.com.
Additional information about this and other productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.