All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Pericles — Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

Pericles_15Fashionable though it has become to gush over experimentation and bask in “process,” my firm and decided preference is for the polished and finished. I don’t mind seeing a play go from embryo to completion, but when it comes to theatrical style, clean and precise is my meat.

How lucky then to see something that is experimental but has the patina of the meticulous and the sensibility of the thoughtful!

I’m talking about the Pennsylvania Shakespeare production of “Pericles,” one of the most rarely performed of Shakespeare’s works, a study in process that not only illuminates and enlivens a difficult play but shows the wit, intelligence, imagination, and professional gloss of a company that takes pride and care in what they present to an audience.

Pennsylvania Shakespeare’s “Pericles” is an example of what artistic director Patrick Mulcahy brands as “extreme Shakespeare.” The point is to approximate as much as possible the steps Burbage’s troupe or some other band of players would have taken to mount one of Shakespeare’s works in the early 17th century, when “Pericles” premiered. In a curtain speech, Mulcahy, who worked with James J. Christy on a the text PSF used for “Pericles,” informs us the cast came to their first rehearsal four day earlier already knowing their lines. (More about that later.) With no director to guide them in blocking or character development, each performer was let loose to “raid” the costume shop or wear his or her own clothing, choose props and wigs, and decide how to assay his or her part. Coordination would be the responsibility of the company. Pace of the play and technical matters could be in flux. Everything would depend on what the actors decided. They didn’t even have their own dedicated set. “Pericles” is done on the unstruck stage of PSF’s recent “Around the World in 80 Days.” Even the lights remained set as they were for that production.

Mayhem or dullness are the risks. A previous “extreme Shakespeare” gambit, a production of “Henry VIII” in 2013, did not fare that well and was frequently a boring mess.

“Pericles” is the glorious antidote to that experience. Leadership must have emerged from somewhere because the PSF cast, left to their own devices, realized a tight, engrossing show that capitalizes on the episodic absurdity of Shakespeare’s plot and knits all tangents beautifully. Which is to say, seamlessly. Few directors could have mustered the achievement the PSF actors accomplished en masse. There’s even a dance, a fairly easy dance, but one joined by four male actors in turn. Tattletales say it was devised by one of the company members, Gina Lamparella, on the spot. However it appeared, the moment was inspired and theatrical. It was the nonpareil sprinkled over the dark chocolate to give it that contrasting bite. Bravo!

Ludicrous as “Pericles” can be at time, and prosaically as it is written in the twilight of Shakespeare’s career, the PSF productions holds both your interest and your imagination. Whether Christopher Patrick Mullen is stunning you with the depth and inventiveness of his portrayal of Pericles, or Ian Moody is impressing you with the cohesiveness of his performances and his musical ability, PSF’s “Pericles” delights and excites simultaneously. All hands, and they shall be named, deserve grand congratulations for banding together to create something special. The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival has much to celebrate in 2015. All five of its productions, “Les Misérables,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” “The Foreigner,” “Henry V,” and “Pericles” can be enthusiastically commended. “Pericles,” surprisingly, stands out as the best of them all.

Invention is everywhere. Richard B. Watson, serially playing the ruler or head poobah of various places Pericles lands in a picaresque that takes him to lands conventional and exotic, endows each of his potentates with a different access. In Antioch, he speaks in Sid Caesar Russian (that I think he intends to be Arabic). In another locale, he takes on a Southern gentleman’s patois. Each place Mullen’s Pericles lands, Watson is there to greet him as the big chief in a different variation of the English tongue.

The bit works. Watson is always entertaining. His accent may not be consistent, but the perfidy and duplicitousness of the several sovereigns are. Shakespeare is definitely contrasting the honest, though beset and beleaguered Pericles with the shifty leaders of realms removed from Tyre, where he is the prince and chief magistrate.

If Watson is changeable in an assortment of archetypical monarchs, Emiley Kiser is steadfast and verbally resourceful as Marina, a now-grown daughter Pericles left for safe keeping with the royal Cleon and Dionyza on the island of Tarsus while he mourns for the wife who drowned in a sea storm just after giving Marina birth.

Kiser’s Marina could give Doris Day lessons in preserving life and virginity as she frustrates a bawd who has taken her to her brothel and figures to make a fortune on this poised and comely newbie. Instead, Marina lectures about morality to all who pay to initiate her to the ways of womanhood. Miraculously, all the men — sailor, private, pimp, or gentleman — succumb to her sincere purity and leave, unreimbursed, while respecting it.

This serves Marina especially well when the governor of the island on which she is indentured, Lysimachus, played with urbane, sympathetic dash by Spencer Plachy, recognizes Marina’s goodness, visits her when he wants to renew or reinforce his own, and spreads the word about her modest piety to someone who can reunite Marina with her father.

NealBoxOh yes, this is one of those late Shakespeare plays in which people come back to life and back into lives to establish and well-knit and well-appreciated happy ending. No statues are animated or lives magically restored. All happens naturally and rewardingly, for the play’s ecstatic characters and the production’s grateful audience.

Watson and Kiser are not the only ones with genius up their sleeves.

Christopher Patrick Mullen is flat out brilliant as Pericles, playing many moods, resorting to many devices, and being so despondent at one point, he breaks your heart and fixes you, mesmerized, to the PSF stage while he elicits every ounce of pathos and fellow feeling you have. The grief Pericles feels, and the withdrawal from the world he imposes upon himself, registers that deeply and palpably.

Mullen, who has proven in many performances over many years that he can go from farcical to affecting, displays his whole range here, being adventurous, impulsive, generous, betrayed, heroic, buffeted, exhilarated, and crestfallen as a Pericles who endures all bounties and all misfortunes this wide world can offer.

Mullen’s young Pericles is curious. The boundaries of Tyre are not enough for him. He longs to see other worlds. The map Bob Phillips and Samina Vieth designed for “Around the World in 80 Days” comes in handy as Pericles points to all the places he’s been on his journey to know the world. The “Pericles” cast also make good use the lighting that allows orbs on that map to represent or approximate moonlight and other effects.

You see youthful energy and anticipatory wonder in Mullen’s expressions and movement as Pericles goes off on his quest, leaving the government of Tyre to a trusty elder, Helicanus, amusing played by the versatile Eric Hissom.

Pericles goes through all of the stages of man, and Mullen portrays him as one who understands and is open to all life dispenses, whether it be beneficent or sorrowful. Mullen is convincing as a man in the throes of romance when Pericles meets Thaisa in her native land and takes her, a princess, from her parents to wed her as his bride.

Both Mullen and Gina Lamparella convey the joy and warmth Pericles and Thaisa mutually share. This is a happy, well-matched pair.

Naturally, they are in store for calamity. When it comes, Thaisa, given for dead and separated from Pericles and Marina, accepts her fate in stoic resignation. Pericles returns to the seas and foreign points to seek bereavement from his loss. His pain is compounded when he returns to Tarsus to seek the teenage Marina and is informed she, like Thaisa, is dead.

With this news, Mullen, who has been remarkable all along as an entertainer and a character worthy of empathy, wrings our emotions with his portrayal of Pericles is unremitting, inconsolable, unfathomable grief that basically paralyzes him where he sits unable to enjoy the company of others, food to nourish, or comfort or compassion of any kind.

Mullen makes us pity Pericles and understand his anguish. Seeing him sink lower and lower in his torpor, just as he sinks lower and lower in the chair from which he never budges, is heartbreaking and makes you feel the dolor Pericles is enduring.

Pericles_16Mullen’s is masterful work, all the more remarkable because it is achieved without the benefit of a director. As in Shakespeare’s day, the “Pericles” company may have been his mirror and may have encouraged, suggested, or applauded choices Mullen made. However Mullen’s performance is constructed, it is of high quality and runs a gamut of swashbuckling action and overwhelmed stillness that astounds in his depth and artistry. To think this performance was conceived and honed in four days makes Mullen’s achievement even more extraordinary.

In addition to being a nifty, and handy, choreographer, Gina Lamparella is a noble Thaisa. She does all with such fastidious dignity, whether Thaisa is the blush of first love, preparing to deliver a child during a mighty squall, mistaken for dead, thrown overboard after heartfelt obsequies, washed up on a distant shore, revived and restored to life, resigned to the loss of Pericles and Marina, or voluntarily bound to chaste order worshiping the vestal goddess, Diana.

Lamparella’s Thaisa is a woman of uncommon sense who graces the stage with her goodness, wisdom, and practicality. She is a fitting wife to a life-affirming prince, a leader among women whether in a royal court, a barge roaming the seas, or interned in a convent.

Eric Hissom chooses to be comically respectable while playing Helicanus, the counselor to whom Pericles leaves in charge of Tyre while he goes on his pilgrimage. Hissom takes on the behavior of a fuddy duddy, complete in a suit that is slightly too small, a dress shirt that is buttoned to the top and fits uncomfortably tight, and a necktie that is knotted as high as it can be, adding to impression Helicanus in choking in his business attire and role as Pericles’s deputy, appointed under protest, possibly feigned.

Hissom is as funny in aspect as Helicanus is serious about wanting to govern well. He’s like the misfit in the office who proves to be quite competent with given a major task, no matter how incongruous his ability is to his appearance.

Brad DePlanche is correctly perplexed and concerned as the man summoned to deal with the matter when Thaisa arrived, wrapped for burial at sea, on his country’s shore. He is raucously crude while retaining a comic attitude as Pander, the aptly named co-owner of a brothel where Marina persuades customers not to debase her with anything as foul as sex.

Suzanne O’Donnell is likewise flummoxed as the bawd who is supposed to acquaint Marina with the fine points of whoredom but is thwarted at every turn.

O’Donnell’s line readings are particularly sharp as she plays her character’s exasperation but also conveys her seedy and wanton worldliness. Eric Hissom leaves behind his dutiful counselor of Tyre to hilariously play the pimp, Boult, who is charged by O’Donnell’s bawd to deflower Marina.

One of the great traits of PSF’s “Pericles” is how free the cast is in delivering Shakespeare. Liberties of presentation are taken, but they all work. For one of the few times in my career, I curse my habit of taking no notes because there’s one line Susan Riley Stevens reads of the murderously treacherous Dionyza I thought was a masterful way of making an ordinary phrase comic and special. Now, I don’t remember what it is. Wait, wait, wait (as I’ve waited more than an hour for the revelation). Like Eliza Doolittle, I think I’ve got it. It has something to do with Dionyza telling her husband, and Marina’s woebegotten guardian, Cleon, how Pericles will never know Marina, who Dionyza thinks has been killed, was slaughtered unless he, like an fool unable to contain his guilt or honesty, blurts out, “She died by foul play.”

Thank you, Susan. It was by summoning up your tauntingly sardonic reading of the line, as if Dionyza is a child teasing Cleon for his tattling, that brought it back to me.

Smart, imaginative acting abounds, and not only from the tried and true veterans like Mullen, O’Donnell, Riley, Hissom, Watson, and DePlanche. Ian Moody, who chooses a women’s robe as a Maude-like unbuttoned floor-length caftan to indicate being a servant in exotic Antioch, is as clever with Shakespeare’s like as he is with his wardrobe sense. Spencer Plachy stands out in a number of roles but shows his art as the perceptive, kindly, self-aware Lysimachus, the governor who prevents Marina from being staled.

Peter Danieski skillfully shows the sincerity with which Leonine resents his order, to take Marina for a walk and stab her to death. Ally Borgstrom, who appears so robust as one potentate’s daughter, changes expression to convey the drab plainness of Dionyza’s daughter, Philemon, whose mother’s jealousy almost gets Marina slaughtered.

Others appearing as pirates, joining in songs and dances, or adroitly contributing to this brilliant “extreme Shakespeare” effort are Brendan Doyle, Ryan Hagan, Stephanie Hodge, Tori Lewis, Ilia Paulino, and James “Bo” Sayre.

Congratulations to this remarkable troupe for coming together so felicitously to form the production they did. Kudos also to Patrick Mulcahy and Jim Christie for crafting such a workable script, one the PSF cast made so clear even when Shakespeare indulged a tendency to ladle complication on complication, sometimes to the point of preposterousness. One more ‘thank you’ goes to the designers of “Around the World in 80 Days,” significantly Bob Phillips, Samina Vieth, and Eric T. Haugen for the set and lighting you left behind for the “Pericles” cast to use so creatively. I particularly liked the use of lighting radiating from the quite useful map.

Props are also used for excellent effect, especially the toy wooden boat with the red striped sail that Christopher Patrick Mullen constantly uses to indicate Pericles’s voyages and the roughness or smoothness of their outcomes.

“Pericles” runs through Sunday, August 2, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in the Labuda Arts Center of DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, in Center Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $36 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 610-282-WILL (610-282-9455) or by visiting

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