Pericles – the late-career Shakespearian romance, coauthored with a poet of much lesser ability – spans vast geographical, emotional, and generic terrain. These and other challenges mean that it is rarely produced. But while it is a play of inconsistencies, this Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production, with a deft cast under the direction of Brian B. Crowe, draws out the magic and beauty of the play.
Although Pericles rarely makes its way onto the modern stage, it was wildly popular upon its premiere in the first decade of the seventeenth century. Audiences adored the play’s sense of mystery and adventure on the high seas. The play teems with storms and shipwrecks, swashbuckling pirates, exotic and mysterious ports of call, and enough magical mysticism to place it in the realm of any classical epic. The play opens as Prince Pericles discovers the terrible secret that the evil foreign king Antiochus has sought to keep hidden. He vows discretion to Antiochus, but is wise enough to know that the king will not trust him, so Pericles skips town. Pursued by Antiochus’ assassin, Pericles wanders the Mediterranean, travelling around Asia Minor and Northern Africa. His travels bring him new friends and enemies too; they provide him with a wife and daughter but rip them away from him almost immediately. The psychological roller coaster leaves Pericles dazed, and we start to wonder whether his perpetual voyages will ever bring him sanctity.
Crowe and his team meet the challenges of the play gracefully. The wide array of locations and settings, for example, confounds simple staging and is potentially overwhelming. But this production uses a stark white backdrop as a blank canvas throughout, using lighting, music, and a few pieces of scenery to allow Pericles to traverse the Mediterranean. The most inventive moments are during the scenes at sea: a few large ropes come in from off stage to suggest rigging, a set piece is flipped to stand for the ship’s bow, and all the performers on stage sway in unison to evoke the heaving of the waves. The swaying in fact captures the heart of this production: it is knowingly campy, at all times straddling the bounds between literal and figurative in order to show the play’s adventures while also invoking a more grand sense of mystery.
In that same spirit, Crowe has replaced Gower as Shakespeare’s narrator with a three-woman chorus made up of votaresses to Diana. Gower was a contemporary to Chaucer in whom Shakespeare found source material for this play, and so in the early seventeenth century Pericles used its narrator to invoke the reputation of a famous writer of not-so-distant vintage. But Gower’s name-power has surely faded now, and by giving his role to the votaresses Crowe has taken Pericles out of the sphere of literary legend and into the realm of mysticism and wonder.
The decision is entirely fitting for this mystical play on a modern stage. The big complication that no production of Pericles can get around is its co-authorship. A lesser poet named George Wilkins collaborated with Shakespeare, and unfortunately for us, Wilkins seems to have written much of the play’s first half. The consequence for both production and audience is the many scenes of awkwardly end-stopped rhyme schemes and contrived metrical constructions which need to be waded through before you reach Shakespeare’s scenes and his familiar lucidity. The good news is that by this point in his career, Shakespeare was at the height of his poetic powers, and so the payoff for accommodating Wilkins is some beautiful Shakespearean speeches.
In taking on this Shakespearean rarity, Crowe and the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey have dedicated themselves fully to the spirit of wonder, mystery, and adventure that permeate Pericles, embracing wholly the exoticism that so thrilled seventeenth century audiences.