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I’m just going to say it, because it needs to be said: Pericles is probably one of Shakespeare’s worst plays. But fresh off a pandemic hiatus, Shakespeare in Clark Park is up for the challenge.
When I say Pericles is “probably” one of Shakespeare’s worst, it’s not necessarily because there’s competition for this dishonorable distinction; it’s more because Shakespeare’s authorship of the full work is still very much up for debate among scholars. It’s now widely believed that the first two acts of Pericles were written by George Wilkins, a boardinghouse operator and pimp who also, from roughly 1606 to 1608, was a dramatist and novelist. So it’s unfair to lay the blame for Pericles entirely at the Bard’s feet.
Still, though I’d like to be able to blame Wilkins for the play’s faults—of which there are many—the truth is that the script’s weakness is not relegated to the first two acts. The story is convoluted. The characters make a series of questionable choices. Scenes bounce between locations, requiring numerous set and costume changes. The whole thing is supposed to be narrated by a Medieval poet, for some reason. The play is tough on the page, and equally challenging to produce.
Pericles at the Circus
Speaking of challenging productions and questionable choices, the titular hero (played as a younger man by Jo Vito Ramírez, as an older man by J Hernandez) just keeps getting on ships. After losing his vessels and his men in one major storm at sea, he nevertheless decides to embark again, where he is confronted by another enormous storm during which he suffers an even greater loss.
It’s not just that the character's repeating to encounter storms shows his poor self-preservation instinct. All those storms make staging Pericles a nightmare too. Director Carly L. Bodnar teamed with circus director Kaitlin Chin to figure out a way around this. In Clark Park, a towering structure bedecked with aerial silks looms behind the main playspace. Throughout the show, hanging silks transform into key set pieces, including the angry Mediterranean Sea that seems so determined to swallow the young prince whole. Teal silks unfurl to represent waves and sails, while white silks evoke the rope sailors would use to tie themselves to their ships in a tempest.
The aerialist effect is sometimes astounding, as when Ramírez’s storm-tossed Pericles hangs upside down and perilously far from solid ground, or members of the ensemble scramble over each other on the silks to try to escape the storm.
Other circus elements fill the production, including spinning hoops, puppetry, and classical clowning, but it’s the aerial performances that steal the show.
Pulling off Pericles
However, all of the circus arts in the world couldn’t save Pericles without a strong cast to make the most of an imperfect script. As in many Shakespearean productions, all of the actors in the company portray multiple characters, having to take on the unique voice and physicality (and costume) of each character, often in back-to-back scenes.
I couldn’t take my eyes off Ramírez while they were onstage. Ditto Tai Verley as the aforementioned Medieval poet, ad-libbing on her entrances and helping the audience navigate some of the more confusing plot elements, and Lisa VillaMil in her many roles. First playing Pericles’ bride and then his daughter, Brittany Onukwugha brings both sweetness and guile to each role. I could go on praising every member of the cast for their tremendous effort.
It’s sadly common to see a bad, or at least disappointing, production of a good play. It’s far rarer to see an excellent production of a play that is, well, not so good. But with its ambitious staging and brilliant cast, Shakespeare in Clark Park has pulled off exactly that. And for the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed Pericles.
What, When, Where
Pericles, Prince of Tyre. By William Shakespeare (and probably also George Wilkins). Directed by Carly L. Bodnar. Through August 1, 2021, in “The Bowl” at Clark Park, near the intersection of 43rd Street and Chester Avenue. Shakespeareinclarkpark.org.
Patrons with mobility issues may find it challenging to access the performance space. “Covid-safe” space as well as reserved space for vaccinated patrons is available through prior arrangement.
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