Folger Theater brings ‘Pericles’ to life in a revival of a troubled classic

Folger Theater brings ‘Pericles’ to life in a revival of a troubled classic

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Teresa Wood)

Director Joseph Haj’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Pericles” is a far more accessible production than you might think. Originating at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this play-with-music has all the elements of a ripping good story.

It was one of the Bard’s most popular plays — that is before the Plague closed theater doors and then the Puritans caught wind of it and shut it down entirely. Though its premise is dark, featuring war, angry gods and paternal incest, it evolves into a feel-good fairy tale with the added attraction of humor, campy gender bending, romance and heroism.

Pericles (Wayne T. Carr) leaves Tyre on his epic odyssey to woo the daughter of Antiochus (Scott Ripley), the incestuous father, who poses a riddle to all her suitors. Should they solve it within 40 days, they would have her hand in marriage.

In a dramatic moment, the princess (Jennie Greenberry) appears in a backless velvet gown to reveal the riddle tattooed on her sinuous back.

The king’s riddle challenge reads as follows: “I am no viper, yet I feed / On mother’s flesh which did me breed. / 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. / How they may be, and yet in two, / As you will live, resolve it you.”

The once-eager Pericles calls it quits and sails back to Tyre when the king orders him murdered anyway. There he is pursued by Antiochus and forced to set sail for Tarsus. Throughout the play, Gower (Armando Durán) narrates the tale under a shower of stars and ancient astral configurations.

Along the way, our hero is shipwrecked and winds up a castaway in Pentapolis. Set designer Jan Chambers and video designer Francesca Talenti collaborate to create a wonderfully atmospheric storm, with billowing sea-green silks and projections of monstrous waves and torrential rains. Since Pericles survives several storms in his travels, we are treated to this sensational effect a number of times.

In Pentapolis, he is urged to participate in a jousting tournament for the hand of King Simonides’s (Scott Ripley again) daughter, the beautiful Thaisa (Brooke Parks). At the evening’s celebration, the king encourages Pericles, the victor, to dance with her. In a particularly hilarious scene, the flat-footed Pericles becomes besotted by Thaisa. Soon after, they wed and later he takes his pregnant wife back to Tyre by ship, where she drowns after childbirth.

When their daughter Marina (Jennie Greenberry again) grows up, she is abducted by pirates and sold into prostitution, where she remains a virgin by convincing men they should choose virtue over the pleasures of the flesh.

“She is able to freeze the god Priapus,” declares her captor, played by Michael J. Hume in gold lurex and platform heels as the bawdyhouse owner. But it is Lord Lysimachus, governor of the region (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend), who, noting her good breeding, buys her freedom with sacks of gold. All’s well that ends well, but I won’t reveal how.

A terrific cast sings some of the poetry-set-to-song by Tony-Award winner Jack Herrick, who employs the period genre of Elizabethan madrigals. Costumes by Raquel Barreto appear to have sprung from ancient friezes on Greek temples. Look for the hauntingly beautiful goddess Diana (Emily Serdahl) to offer guidance and solace. We need it in these turbulent times.