Review: ‘Pericles’ by We Happy Few

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Let’s be clear, Pericles is pretty much a first draft play that Shakespeare never quite finished. Now to be fair, the work is not wholly attributed to him, but with more than a few murderous plots, storms at sea, and hidden truths, Shakespeare could have done with a dramaturg to help him focus. Lucky for us though, that never happened, and We Happy Few took the rather confused mix of literary fodder and turned it into something delightful.

Jenna Berk and Grant Cloyd in We Happy Few's production of Pericles. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.
Jenna Berk and Grant Cloyd in We Happy Few’s production of Pericles. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Within the plot ramblings, We Happy Few found the freedom to do what they pleased with the production. Much like a story told around a campfire, this band of merry performers used what little they had—a box, some scarves, a drum—to bring over 20 characters and a half dozen location changes to life. With landscapes so varied and characters so numerous, each performer relied on humorous caricatures of Shakespeare’s normal heroes and villains, ladies and lords to help the audience follow. Through all this boisterousness, it would have been easy to tip too far into the ridiculous, but to the delight of everyone there, We Happy Few never made a misstep. They walked the fine line between comedic and absurd expertly in a way that Shakespeare’s other works neither would have nor could have ever allowed.

In the title role, Grant Cloyd as Pericles was the calm, constant thread throughout the story’s many twists and turns. Borrowing from the poised demeanor of traditional Shakespearean actors, Cloyd was the perfect foil to the wacky and lightning-speed changes of his fellow troupe-mates. For the rest, they discarded roles as quickly as they were donned. These fleeting characters were only onstage long enough to get the broadest of strokes of their personalities, but they were certainly entertaining with their comedic phrasing and modernized wit. The perfect example of this was Jon Reynolds, who went from hissing assassin to Justin Bieber-esque musician to governor Lysimachus (and many, many others) over the span of the 90-minute production.

Grant Cloyd (center), Dave Gamble, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Jenna Berk, and Jon Reynolds (clockwise from top) in Pericles. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.
Grant Cloyd (center), Dave Gamble, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Jenna Berk, and Jon Reynolds (clockwise from top) in Pericles. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Thankfully there was one role for each of the ensemble that they lived in long enough for us to see their skill at teasing out the layered nuances we all associate with Shakespeare’s characters (still present, though buried in Pericles’ text). In particular, Jenna Berk as Marina and Jennifer J. Hopkins as Thaisa took me by complete surprise with the thoughtful subtlety and depth with which they plumbed their characters’ misfortune. Kerry McGee too bounced through some of the most absurd supporting characters and yet took hold as the jealous, murderous queen, Dionyza. Charlie Retzlaff and David Gamble were also stalwart members of the ensemble taking on everything from an incestuous king to a murdering thug with impressive and rapid-fire ease. Gender swapping was also deployed in true Shakespeare fashion, heightening the camp and lessening the sinister moments that would have strayed from the lively tenor We Happy Few aimed to produce.

Guiding this production’s mixture of storytelling and stand-up comedy was director Kiernan McGowan, and together with Movement Director, Raven Bonniwell, and Producer, Bridget Grace Sheaff, they established a magical, scattered world that was fluid, transitory, and never-ending in its cleverness. Set in an intimate black, box theater at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, this production took advantage of every square inch, not to mention a few audience members to bring their tale to life. With lighting by Jason Aufdem-Brinke and sound by Ethan Balis, this up close and personal setting quite literally broke the fourth wall, and with it, let go of the tension, pretension, and expectation often tied up within lines of iambic pentameter.

Normally when there’s a play of so many plot points, character, acts of God, and shipwrecks, it’s to the detriment of all—and to agree with and quote the director in his note, “thematically there is little that runs through the entire course of the play”—but in the face of all that noise, We Happy Few managed to whittle down to the core with this lively production and have a whole lot of fun. Self-aware and at the same time unselfconscious, this production of Pericles by We Happy Few knows exactly what they are doing. Highly recommended to anyone looking for a bit of ridiculous in their life, but hold on because you might just get washed out to sea.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Pericles presented by We Happy Few is playing through June 8th at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th St SE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (804) 347-0051, or purchase them online.