Review: ‘Pericles’ at Delaware Shakespeare Festival

Thousands of years ago, people gathered in the great hall of a palace to hear a bard, like Homer, tell a magical tale of heroes undergoing a journey.  Accompanied by a simple lyre, and a poem filled with powerful language and extraordinary deeds, this pre-media crowd would listen and experience the story.  Such an event occurred with Delaware Shakespeare Company’s Pericles, which presented Shakespeare’s play in the simplest possible manner.

Designed to tour in non-theatrical spaces, this massive play is presented in a small room, (or cafeteria or board room), with simple costumes, and no settings or lights.  It has already toured to such places as Dover Air Force Base and the Groves Adult High School and will continue to various homeless shelters and correctional institutes throughout the state.  The tour will end with 2 performances at the Delaware History Museum in Wilmington on November 19 and 20th.

Jamal Douglas (Pericles) and Ruby Wolf (Marina) perform at the Achievement Center of the Wilmington HOPE Commission in the Delaware Shakespeare Festival’s touring production of “Pericles.” Photo by Alessandra Nicole of Delaware online.

Jamal Douglas (Pericles) and Ruby Wolf (Marina) perform at the Achievement Center of the Wilmington HOPE Commission in the Delaware Shakespeare Festival’s touring production of “Pericles.” Photo by Alessandra Nicole of PlayShakespeare.com.

Pericles is often called Shakespeare’s worst play.  There is some scholarly disagreement here, (fighting is fierce at the bottom of the barrel), but the plot confusingly moves from too many ancient Mediterranean locations (Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus and many more.)  It also has what seems to be a cast of thousands, and certainly lacks the poetic brilliance of the bard’s best works.  Directors, however, have always championed Pericles for it succeeds as a good adventure story with a moving and jubilant ending.  The final scenes are the best in this production, and scholars agree that these may be the only parts written by Shakespeare.

The Delaware Company presents this gigantic tale in a small empty square with audience on four sides. Local sculptor David Meyer has designed a metal creation that impressionistically resembles a ship. It is disassembled and the pieces are used to create visual interest. Katherine Fritz’ wondrous costumes are essentially modern, (pants, shirts, hoodies), with an occasional cape or crown to create timelessness. There is no lighting, which allows the actors to speak directly to the highly visible audience.  The smallness of the space means that Shakespeare can be spoken conversationally, an unusual treat

Artistic Director David Stradley stages it all as honestly as possible, but has drawn such eloquent performances from his Equity cast that the traditionally huge production is never missed.

The cast greets and chats with the audience before the play begins. This is an excellent idea as there is no backstage or offstage. They prove to be warm and eager for us to enjoy the story.

The role of Gower the narrator has been given to the entire cast and Stradley’s interpretation soon becomes clear. These are not so much actors as storytellers, using the ancient bardic style to entertain us. A musician, (Joe Trainor), plays a small portable piano.

Jamal Douglas (Pericles) and Bi Jean Ngo (Thaisa). Photo by Allesandra Nicole.

Jamal Douglas (Pericles) and Bi Jean Ngo (Thaisa). Photo by Allesandra Nicole.

The cast is as racially diverse as its audience, and thanks to the text coaching of Matt Tallman, the poetry is delivered with clarity. This is a real plus as much of the tour will perform to groups that have never seen a play before.  As he has for centuries, Shakespeare again proves that he can play successfully to all  audiences.

The eight actors are given many too many roles to play, but Stradley has designed the event so that each performer has one standout characterization to make a memorable impression. Danielle Lenee is touching as the loyal friend Helicanus, while J Hernandez scores as a comical whore. Corinna Burns jumps effectively from the wicked queen Dionyza to a comic bawdyhouse pimp.

As Pericles, Jamal Douglas has a thick American accent, but shines in the title role as he moves from youthful adventurer to an older king despondent by the loss of his loved ones.  Douglas‘ warmth centers the production and his accent may actually be an asset as many audiences are put-off by mid-Atlantic speech.

Ruby Wolf, (Marina),  succeeds in one of Shakespeare’s most impossible scenes.  She has been captured by pirates and sold into a whorehouse, but her impressive honesty and naivete converts a lecherous governor (Trevor William Fayle) into a charming leading man. Later, when she tries to rouse Pericles from his depression, she plays the violin, adding luster to Joe Trainor’s excellent musical score.  Kirk Wendell Brown is a lovable Simonodes, and Bi Jean Ngo energetically plays both the fairytale queen Thaisa, and the assassin hired to murder Pericles.

One extraordinary advantage of the in-the-round seating is that I could see the audience share the joy and laughter of the final scenes.  Since I had already spoken with the actors, it was then quite natural, after the curtain call, to approach them and say “Great performance.  Thank you very much.”

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Pericles plays through Sunday, November 20, 2016, at The Delaware History Museum – 504 North Market Street, in Wilmington, DE. For tickets call the theater at (302) 415-3373, or purchase them online.

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