‘In the Moment’: Thoughts on Folger Theatre’s ‘Pericles’

Dazzling.

Indeed Pericles is quite dazzling in the contemporary creation from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival currently at the Folger Theatre. It possesses a radiance with its modern youthful vigor of “let’s see what we can do with it” sensibility for what is a less-often-seen work by Shakespeare. And it is a work that was a popular during The Bard’s lifetime before falling out of favor with changing times in England and rarely been a mainstay of American stages. It is such an unstodgy production in its approach and execution.

It certainly doesn’t possess a social media “click-bait” title, at least not until this Pericles from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  

Wayne T. Carr (Pericles). Photo by Photos by Teresa Wood.

Wayne T. Carr (Pericles). Photo by Photos by Teresa Wood.

My DCMetroTheaterArts colleague Sophia Howes has given Pericles a well-deserved 5 star review.

This Pericles is meticulously packed with technical design details that deliver lively oomph-and-pop with its up-to-date soulful American roots music/lyrics (Jack Herrick, music and lyrics), ravishing projections and sound (Francesca Talenti, video designer and Amadon Jaeger, sound designer) and crackling performances from a small band of players many of who double-up in roles. All together with The Bard’s text, this Pericles totally charms, for what is, “both underknown and undervalued,” according to Director Joseph Haj.

Pericles opens with the shock value and bold, large font headline sensationalism of incest between a King and his daughter that test the limits of family bonds and what the audience can expect as the play unfolds. Is this opening why it is not so much a mainstay, or perhaps not “teachable” in public high schools or in academia?

Important, I suspect, to what we the audience see, is that Haj has his own real life’s journey to draw upon for inspiration. A vision about moving through a challenging world as an outsider that he brings to bear for Pericles – both the character and the play.

Let’s just call Haj a theatrical alchemist. He clearly loves Pericles
and its characters. His direction brings forth emotionally expressive romantic ardor, whether sensual, “out-of-bounds” normally taboo sexuality or chaste parental love, as well as an unimaginable darkness leavened with Shakespearean bawdiness for bouts of good-natured and wise laughter.

And yet, it’s sweet, often enough soft-spoken romantic appeal masks some heavy-duty, serious dark shivers. Not the least of which is this: the daughters in the various families depicted in Pericles are regularly depicted as merely a commodity for a father to decide what to do with. And that is whether or not the father has evil in mind or just that as “father knows best” character.

As I have thought about this since deeply seeing the show the other day,  I wondered what the DC’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival folk would make of Pericles view of women or say Millennial audiences. Am I being a prude? Seeing things that are not there?

So, I have been asking myself, “How now” can one of Shakespeare’s last plays that begins with the jolt incest become such a contemporary lyrical journey as underscored by modern-day sounding American music, and performed by a small band including keyboard, guitar, and stings along with other well-place instruments?

Or “how now,” can Pericles, with its strong Old Testament moral values about right and evil (whether incest or the human trafficking of a virgin into a brothel) testing the limits of human bonds – be so light on its feet?

Or “how now,” can Pericles smooth away betrayals, abductions, and murder, become so easily and veiled into beautiful, starry-nights?

I loved Pericles – so please don’t get me wrong – these questions won’t go away for what might be called a “Miracle Play” or Biblical story that provides important moral lessons to live by during Elizabethan times, and the uncertainty about whom follows a childless Monarch.

And then I ponder still, was it the “good-times” music and lyrics by Tony Award recipient Jack Herrick that so well matched the many mentions of music in the Bard’s text; such as “I hear music” or even “heavenly music”? Did Herrick’s musical work soak into my brain too easily with its late ‘60’s pre-electric hippie-folk rhythms and voices, or the more recent air time for contemporary roots music?  Or did the stringed instruments, such as on-stage cello and violin, just quietly wail into my soul?

Was it the projections of starry skies that too easily reminded me of my own youthful days gazing-up hypnotically at painted Day-Glo stars on painted black ceilings? Or the sound of waves and stormy seas that reminded me of particular songs that went along with gazing up at painted stars?

Brooke Parks (Thaisa), Wayne T. Carr (Pericles), Emily Serdahl (Lychordia), and Scott Ripley (Simonides). Photo by Teresa Wood.

Brooke Parks (Thaisa), Wayne T. Carr (Pericles), Emily Serdahl (Lychordia), and Scott Ripley (Simonides). Photo by Teresa Wood.

Or was it the doubling and transformation of many of the actors so that the same actor took on both dark and light roles so effortlessly? For instance, Jennie Greenberry who we first meet in the guise of a sensual, free-wheeling’ temptress daughter, who later becomes the sweet, caring virtuous, virginal Marina, daughter of Pericles? Or the energy-rich, enchanting work of Brook Parks as a lively daughter and then a more restrained “through the years” steadfast wife to Pericles?

Folger dramaturg Michel Osherow wrote about Pericles the man being made new again by “a wife’s presence” and “conversation with his child.” But what of them? I have to wonder what their take on all of the Pericles journey and the many losses we witness meant to them.

Ah, the alchemy of Director Haj! I realize he is the answer to all that I ponder.

Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.

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Pericles plays through December 20, 2015 at The Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library—201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.

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