Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a most unusual play. It is generally accepted into the Shakespearean canon despite questions about its authorship. Scholars have quibbled about the play for centuries and there seems to be a consensus that the Bard was responsible for writing at least the last half of the play, with the first half penned by a hack. Wikipedia, that bastion of often-correct information, has it that the first half was written by a “mediocre collaborator, which strong evidence suggests to have been the victualler, panderer, dramatist and pamphleteer George Wilkins.” Despite its shady provenance, Pericles is performed at Shakespeare festivals around the world. It was staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last season. Not a tragedy, nor a comedy, Pericles is a romantic melodrama rife with such unseemly behaviors as father/daughter incest and prostitution.
The play is notoriously difficult to stage with twenty named or described characters, as well as “Lords, Ladies, Knights, Gentlemen, Sailors, Pirates, Fishermen, and Messengers.” The action takes place in multiple locations of antiquity over a period of years and includes a scene aboard a ship in a desperate storm. It is this background that makes the ambitious Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s production of Pericles such a remarkable achievement. That is a lot to shoehorn into the intimate Richard Goad Theatre, which seats forty-nine, a venue much like the storefront theatres of Theatre Row in Hollywood.
Pericles tells the grand, romantic story of a questing young ruler determined to find a suitable woman to wed, love and bear him an heir. His first stop is Antioch where King Antiochus (Leo Lerma) has an incestuous relationship with his beautiful daughter (Casey Ellings). Any suitor who applies for the job of wooing and wedding the princess must solve three riddles or die. The bloody heads are prominently on display. The clever Prince of Tyre solves the riddle, which has to do with the truth of the King and his daughter. He wriggles out of the situation and flees. From there his adventures are too numerous to detail here, but suffice it to say that he finds a true love, gets a daughter, and loses them both before a climactic end and an emotionally satisfying dénoument.
The English poet Gower (1330-1408) serves as Chorus, much like the famed Chorus of Henry V, who speaks directly to the audience to bridge the scenes that span time and place. The script calls for one player to enact the role, but director Helen Borgers, with inspired theatricality, has assigned the role to six masked actors. In fact, masks are used throughout the show to great effect and go a long way toward keeping the characters straight in this sweeping story. The performers also sing (musical director Edmund Velasco) and dance (choreography by Jesse Seann Atkinson) while playing improvised instruments.
In a tiny space much like the storefront theatres of Theatre Row in Hollywood and similar venues in North Hollywood, LBSC’s Richard Goad Theatre seats forty-nine. With nine actors playing those twenty plus roles, all, save Joe LoCicero (fit and handsome like a Disney hero) in the title role, must play multiple characters. In addition to the actors already mentioned, the ensemble consists of Devin Ketko, Amy Paloma Welch, Gerardo Macias, Ken Knight, Rem Garza, and Veronica Woo. A key player in the show, Leo Lerma effectively crafts a broad range characters from the incestuous Antiochus to the noble Helicanus (advisor to Pericles) and the wise physician Lord Cerimon. Throw in turns as Pander, the brothel owner, as well as small appearances as a pirate and a fisherman, and you have a very hard working actor. Lithe and lovely, Devin Ketko does well as Pericles’ love, Thaisa, and the villainous plotter Dionyza, who, in her jealousy, schemes to kill Pericles’ daughter Marina (Casey Ellings).
The cast is well rehearsed and well spoken, with meaning clearly conveyed. With so much action, so many characters, and so many locales, it was good to have the program at hand with the cast list and a thorough synopsis. My only serious criticism is that the pace lagged at times, which had the director in me muttering, “Pick it up; pick it up.” On the whole, however, Pericles must be considered a triumph for the company.
With production design and special effects by Tim Leach, set design by Benjamin Weinert-Lishner, lights by Saki Sato, and costumes by Dana Leach, the production is handsomely staged. Projections enlivened up the scenes, especially the storm at sea.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre has two more performance on Friday, March 18 and Saturday, March19 at the Richard Goad Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Avenue in Long Beach.