Smooth Sailing for Stripped-Down Pericles

“For look how fresh she looks! They were too rough that threw her in the sea.” (Pericles, Act III, scene 2)

Wait, seven actors performing a Shakespeare play that has dozens of speaking roles?

How now, my lord?

This is how: cut characters and snip text, and then weave actors in and out of multiple roles. Fortunately, director Kiernan McGowan knows how to handle the scissors and loom. His trim version Pericles, which We Happy Few theater company performs at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop through June 8, clocks in at just 90 minutes, and it works brilliantly.

Grant Cloyd as Pericles conveys the character’s frequent incredulity with perfect aplomb, while Jenna Berk sparkles in an energetic performance as his lost daughter, Marina. Jennifer J. Hopkins, as Pericles’s wife, Thaisa, charmingly alternates between coy, funny, and sad. Kerry McGee delivers a wonderful rendering of the scheming, Lady Macbeth-like Dionyza. Jon Reynolds is convincing as the emotionally-conflicted Cleon, a governor with a conscience (playing the guitar, he also sings a great version of “Crimson and Clover”). Charlie Retzlaff plays Cerimon as an engaging eccentric, while David Gamble portrays Simonides with perfect intensity.

To their fine credit, each actor plays additional roles with an impressive range that clearly and convincingly differentiates the characters.

Pericles echoes themes and story lines found elsewhere in Shakespeare, such as the alienated man who believes he’s lost his wife and daughter, only to be reunited with them in the end. The Winter’s Tale tells such a story as well, with calumny a tension-raising element.

In Pericles, the theme of incest adds tension. Shakespeare is explicit in describing the illicit king-daughter relationship at the beginning of the play. It comes up again late in the second act, when a character recounts that lightning has struck and “shrivell’d up” the king and daughter, as well as at the end of the play. Shakespeare seems to have been fixated on the incest theme, which also figures prominently in Hamlet.

More generally, the theme of alienation crops up in other plays that include Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, and King Lear.

Which brings us to a mystery: Nothing in the life of the man from Stratford to whom the Shakespeare plays are attributed connects him to such subject matter. By all accounts, he was a wealthy businessman who was successful in real estate and the grain trade. There’s no evidence he experienced any of the negative emotional issues we see in the plays, including Pericles.

Is it any wonder, then, that the University of London has begun offering a course on the Shakespeare Authorship Question?

Faithful-to-the-text rating for Pericles: 4 out of 5 stars

I used the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Pericles to evaluate how faithful the We Happy Few’s production is to the play’s original text. I selected approximately 70 difficult words and phrases from the play, such as “gloze,” “lop that doubt,” and “our paragon to all reports blasted,” and then listened for them during the performance, an approach that added a somewhat objective measure to an otherwise purely subjective analysis.

We Happy Few’s production follows an abridged text that cuts a large amount of material from the original Shakespeare play. Still, the performance I attended retained about a third of the difficult words and phrases on my list (including all those shown above), and even some of the Latin phrases. For me, “faithful to the text” for the most part means replicating the Early Modern English in the retained portion of the play instead of “translating” it.  Thus, I give Pericles 4 out of 5 stars for being faithful to the text, lopping off just one of the five stars because of the play’s abridgment.