I f you stand for a minute or two near the tower at the back of the crowd during one of the Elm Shakespeare Company’s summer performances in Edgerton Park, your ears can make out a quiet barrage of spoken cues meant for other attentive ears among the crew. It’s one of the ways even those of us who’ve never worked on a stage crew or acted in a play can begin to understand just how much work goes into executing one of Elm Shakespeare’s beloved Shakespeare in the Park productions.
This summer, the play is Pericles, an inspired choice for being rarely performed and “somewhat neglected,” as director James Andreassi puts it mildly in his program letter, compared to most other works in Shakespeare’s canon. In this energized interpretation, the original’s ancient Grecian settings and characters are given a less ancient (but still long-past) Caribbean makeover. Performed nightly (except Mondays) at 8 p.m. until Sunday, August 31, under skies and arching trees, performances commence just as dusk settles in.
An academic debate about whether the Bard penned every word of Pericles has resolved to a consensus that he didn’t. The leading theory is that George Wilkins, a contemporary of Shakespeare and jack of all trades, wrote the first two acts or so, which helps explain why there’s so much stuff in this singular play: narrow escapes, harrowing sea voyages, a search for love and family, famine, revenge, hand-to-hand combat, dancing, pirates and even resurrections.
As a result, Pericles is fast-moving, dramatic fare that stirs the senses, starting with a life-and-death puzzle—a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrum. Antiochus (Damian Buzzerio), king of Antioch, promises the privilege of marrying his daughter, Hesperides (Rachel Bogan), to any suitor who can solve the king’s riddle. Those who fail to respond correctly are promised death. Upon hearing the riddle, Pericles (Paul Pryce, pictured third, sixth and eleventh), prince of Tyre, divines the answer—that Antiochus and his daughter are lovers, which reveals to him the cruelty of Antiochus’s game. Should the prince answer incorrectly, death is his fate; but if he answers correctly, death is also his fate, since the king surely won’t allow him to carry away this damaging secret. To buy himself time, Pericles feigns uncertainty, and Antiochus grants him forty days to ponder the mystery; the prince uses this brief reprieve to sail away from danger. His odyssey takes him to Tyre and then to Tarsus, where, giving Governor Cleon (Colin Lane) and his wife Dionyza (Robyn Maitland) grain from his ship to stave off a famine, he saves the city.
A storm sends him to Pentapolis where he’s rescued by fishermen and encouraged to enter a good-natured tournament, fighting for glory and the favor of Thaisa (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, pictured fourth), the daughter of the good king Simonides (Raphael Massie, pictured fifth and tenth). More adventures ensue, including the birth of his child and death of his wife during a storm at sea. Through many more perilous problems, Pryce is poignant and powerful as the beleaguered prince who knows great joy and great sorrow. Gracy Brown, meanwhile, plays the seemingly supernatural Gower (pictured second), a.k.a. the narrator, advancing the story with ominous forecasts of impending events.
The magnificent 95-foot set designed by Vladimir Shpitalnik, built with the help of many more hands at SCSU’s Lyman Hall, gets an additional boost from Edgerton’s majestic trees, whose wending limbs and clustered leaves catch stray rays of stage lighting designed by Jamie Burnett. Castles grow before your eyes, while ships fly through tempests. Translucent ribboned panels running along the front conjure azure tropical seas. The colorful costumes of the court are displayed as ladies and lords dance with merriment and jousters duel with authentic sticks called kalindas. With Afro-Caribbean drums beating and kalindas colliding, the spectacle of the aforementioned tournament, choreographed by fight directors Ted Hewlett and Keely Baisden Knudsen, is a feast for eyes and ears.
Assistant director Devin Fletcher, a Shakespeare scholar, is well aware that Pericles is one of the Bard’s lesser-known and least performed works. But she proclaims this production “brilliant.” No one in the cast had ever performed it before and James Andreassi, the longtime artistic director of Elm Shakespeare, only had one copy of the text on his shelves.
Fletcher feels the play has touches of Indiana Jones- and Disney-esque storytelling, as seen through a “lens of fantasy.” The cast includes Equity (unionized) and non-Equity performers, including “Elm Scholars”—local high schoolers getting firsthand experience working on a professional production. There is even a six-foot puppet that emerges from the mist at a crucial moment in the action.
Audience comments recorded after one performance included “fantastic,” “absolutely wonderful” and “the set was awesome and magical.” Come with your spouse, your kiddies, your well-behaved pup, a picnic supper, a blanket or lawn chairs. You might also bring an extra layer of clothing to ward off chilly evenings, bug spray to discourage insect interlopers and a flashlight to navigate the trip out of the park.
But above all else, bring your sense of adventure.
Elm Shakespeare Company presents Pericles
Edgerton Park – 75 Cliff St, New Haven (map)
8 p.m. every night except Mondays through August 31 (weather permitting)
(203) 874-0801 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims.