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.

Rough Seas: Taffety Punk’s Wonderfully Strange Pericles

The first edition of Pericles was published in 1609, but scholars only guess about the date of the play’s original composition.

One thing I love about Washington, DC is its abundant offerings of Shakespeare. And not just abundant, but diverse. One can enjoy large mainstream productions by the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Folger Theatre, as well as small offbeat productions by the Taffety Punk and Brave Spirits theatre companies.

Taffety Punk, in particular, presents some of the most innovative Shakespeare in town. Once a year, the company takes over the Folger Theater to present a “Bootleg Shakespeare” play. The actors assemble and rehearse for the first time on the morning of the one-time-only performance. These wacky, often rough and uneven productions have a delightful energy that attracts packed houses year after year. Last Monday night’s Bootleg Shakespeare was no exception.

Directed by Lise Bruneau, Taffety Punk’s Pericles included many strong performances. Joel David Santner was flawless as the young Pericles. Smiling with his arms outstretched as he slowly bounced over imaginary waves, he seemed to enjoy his many sea voyages, each time drawing laughs. Santner displayed great chemistry with Esther Williamson who played Pericle’s wife, Thaisa. Ashley Strand’s performance as Simonides, Thaisa’s father, was outstanding.

While the Taffety Punk crew played Pericles mostly for laughs, Chris Genebeach gave a moving performance as the older Pericles reunited with his daughter, Marina, played by Amanda Forstrom in yet another fine performance.

Amy Domingues’ cello added a haunting, beautiful tone that gave the production a pleasant continuity.

If not the filthiest of Shakespeare’s plays, Pericles certainly ranks as one of his strangest – which makes it perfect for Bootleg Shakespeare. The play begins with a story of incest involving a King Antiochus and his daughter. With their violation of the sexual taboo stated in direct terms, the king and daughter repeatedly are vilified as sinners. Fire from heaven eventually “[shrivels] up their bodies.”

Pericles was first published in 1609, but we don’t know when Shakespeare wrote it. Sources for the play date from the 14th century. Charlton Ogburn placed Shakespeare’s original composition in the late 1570’s. If Shakespeare did write Pericles during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, I believe she would have banned it.

Incest had to be a very sensitive topic for Elizabeth. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed for that crime. A contemporary account of a relationship between young princess Elizabeth and her stepfather, Thomas Seymour, strongly suggests incest.

And there’s another reason why Elizabeth would have disliked Pericles.

In 1648, when she was just 14, Elizabeth’s translation of Margarite de Navarre’s The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul was published. Elizabeth’s book is a spiritual meditation on “universal kinship,” the idea that since everyone is a child of God, every carnal relationship is incestuous. An odd text indeed for princess Elizabeth to be translating in her stepparents’ household.

The Queen easily could have thought that Shakespeare’s Pericles was mocking The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul. Here’s an excerpt of the text that Pericles reads about the princess daughter’s relationship with her father:

I sought a husband, in which labour

I found that kindness in a father:

He’s father, son, and husband mild;

I mother, wife, and yet his child.

And here’s an excerpt from Elizabeth’s The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul:

O what union is this, since (through faith) I am sure of Thee. And now I may call Thee son, father, spouse, and brother. Father, brother, son, husband.

In the fourth act of Pericles, Bawd orders Bolt to “crack the glass of [Marina’s] virginity” (emphasis mine). To me, Elizabeth could have viewed this as a swipe at her, the celebrated Virgin Queen and author of The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul. The Queen died six years before the first edition of Pericles appeared.

Given her personal history, it’s not difficult to see why Elizabeth might have banned Pericles. It would explain the puzzle of why the play has romantic elements that sound, as David Bevington has observed, oddly old-fashion for a 1609 publication date.

Leave it to Taffety Punk to make an odd play even odder. Chris Marino as the incestuous King Antiochus looked like the spawn of Goldilocks and the Mad Hatter. Kimberly Gilbert was the dominatrix version of the brothel manager Bawd, Southern-style. Her fire-red bodice looked about two sizes too small, pushing her flesh into her armpits (hope she didn’t hurt herself). With a hilarious drawl and whip in hand, Gilbert’s Bawd dominated all the scenes she was in – and the other people in them. Her side kick, the pimp Bolt (James Flanagan) was equally hilarious. Flanagan articulated his lines like a Mississippian with great comedic aplomb.

Based on what I saw Monday night, I have little doubt that had Taffety Punk performed Pericles during Elizabeth’s reign, she would have ordered all the players shackled and flogged – and some of them might have enjoyed it.

In Washington D.C., See London (Twice!)

The city of London, the subject of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition in Washington, D.C., Open City: London, 1500-1700, is mentioned in the Shakespeare canon more than five dozen times — but always in history plays, most of which are set in the 14th and 15th centuries.  So it’s no surprise that the Folger’s fine exhibition doesn’t spend time trying to connect the revered William of Stratford-upon-Avon to the London described by Shakespeare.

Panorama of London by Claes Van Visscher (1610)

While exploring such links between the Bard and the settings of his plays might be interesting (one wonders why he never mentions Stratford), Open City: London, 1500-1700 is not about how Shakespeare depicted London and environs such as Westminster, Smithfield, and Cheapside in works such as Henry IV, Henry V, Richard II, and Richard III, but rather how political, religious and economic forces, as well as plagues and the 1666 Great Fire, changed the city over the span of two centuries.

If you’re in the D.C. area, I highly recommend seeing the exhibition, which runs through September 30.

Open City: London, 1500-1700 covers three main areas of London life: the church, the theater and the market. Highlights include panoramic period maps of London remarkable in their detail, and a 1616 diptych (hinged panels that the viewer can open) of oil paintings of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Also on display are rare documents and books, including a 1609 edition of Shakespeare’s Pericles, and a 1689 printing of John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” You’ll also see the coat of arms of all companies and guilds doing business in London, circa 1596.

James McNeil Whistler, Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow (1876)

If you’d like to view more London of the past, a nice compliment to the Folger exhibition is Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London, at the nearby Freer Gallery. The Freer exhibition, which also runs through September 30, features watercolors and small oil paintings by James McNeil Whistler of the Chelsea neighborhood where he lived during the 1880s.

And if that’s not enough London for you, you may just want to go there!