Springtime for Shakespeare
The Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival’s production of Pericles has two notable aspects. First, it’s an excellent production that comes close to the flavor of the Globe Theatre, with music and dance enhancing the drama. It reminds us that Shakespeare aimed for audiences with disparate tastes, even giving them something akin to today’s Broadway musicals.
Second, the neglected Pericles is revealed as an interesting creation from the Bard’s final years, an historically important mature play written just before The Tempest.
These achievements come despite handicaps such as the fact that Shakespeare apparently wasn’t the sole author of Pericles. Apparently Shakespeare was hired after another playwright started a draft, and the Bard wrote only the last three acts. But surely a man of Shakespeare’s stature would insist on re-working the entire play; he must have doctored what was previously written. The result is that the play hangs together successfully, considering that the story intentionally is episodic.
Pericles also suffers from a widespread erroneous expectation that it’s about the great Athenian lawgiver of that name. This Pericles is a fictitious prince of Tyre, and the play is an odyssey adventure with a title character who is a cross between Odysseus and Hercules. He’s sent on a dangerous mission and must overcome perils in strange lands before returning home years many years later.
Younger is better
Damon Bonetti, who plays Pericles, has to age considerably over the five acts (here compressed to two) and action sweeping across the Mediterranean Sea to Antioch, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Mytilene and Ephesus as well as Tyre. He is more convincing as the young Pericles than the old. Bonetti is eager and appealing, but his voice lacks a strong low register, so his speeches all fall within one octave. Melissa Dunphy is tantalizing in multiple roles and Christie Parker is a tender wife.
Buck Shirner practically steals the show, masterfully playing the evil king, later a good king and finally a comic. Director Carmen Khan beautifully integrates live music performance and dancing into the action.
Original music was composed for this presentation by Fabian Obispo. Another change is borrowed from an Oregon production: a Greek chorus replaces the narrator of the original text.
An impetuous Juliet
Romeo and Juliet, playing in repertory with Pericles, is as familiar as Pericles is unknown. The Shakespeare Festival presents a straightforward interpretation that co-stars a pair of convincing lovers. Melissa Dunphy, a near-perfect Juliet, appears to be a rapturous teenager and transmits a wonderful impetuosity. As a native of Australia, Dunphy seems totally at home in the English accent that we associate with Shakespeare.
David Raphaely is an equally impetuous and excitable Romeo. This is a bit different from what we usually see—his friend Mercutio is the mercurial one and Romeo is calmer. I liked Raphaely, although his enunciation sometimes was so emphatic that it interrupted the flow of his lines and diminished our understanding of the words. Damon Bonetti was an exciting Mercutio. John Morrison was an uncommonly commanding Capulet, father to Juliet.
JJ Van Name was a bawdy nurse, while Buck Shirner was a stalwart Friar Laurence, brusquer and less comforting than the norm. This interpretation of Friar Laurence suggests that he has a darker and more extensive background than most clerics. How, for example, does he know exactly how long Juliet will sleep if she drinks the potion? And how come he carries such a stash of tonics to begin with?
The duel scenes were staged spectacularly, as we have come to expect in Carmen Khan’s productions. The believability of the fighting is a special achievement when the audience is seated so close to the stage. J. Alex Cordaro deserves praise for his directing of the swordplay.
To read another review of Pericles by Jim Rutter, click here.