Chicago Shakespeare’s new production of “Pericles” begins as the prince arrives in Antioch to bid for the hand of King Antiochus’ daughter. Pericles must solve Antiochus’ riddle, because those who fail to do so are beheaded. The stage décor includes a half dozen heads on poles as proof. Pericles (Ben Carlson) reads the riddle and knows, to his horror, that it describes the incestuous relationship of Antiochus (Sean Fortunato) with his unnamed daughter.
Pericles flees, fearing for his life, and thus begins a series of comic and tragic misadventures. Over the course of this two-act play, Pericles travels an odyssey of sorts, involving storms and shipwrecks, merriment and sorrow, that ends happily 155 minutes later. This play, while not as poetically written as Shakespeare’s greatest plays, gets a beautifully designed production by Chicago Shakespeare. David H. Bell’s direction takes utmost advantage of the best scenes, such as the celebrations and the famous brothel scene in act two.
The staging (by Scott Davis) and costuming (by Nan Cibula-Jenkins) are lush in a color palette of blues and aquas with flowing multicolored robes for the royal characters. The scenic design and handling of ships, storms and celebrations is accomplished without overdoing the drama. The visual design by Aaron Rhyne projects images of stormy seas on a silvery backdrop. Original music by Henry Marsh is magically directed by Ethan Deppe with sound design by James Savage. The music and sound design are especially strong in the celebration scene, highlighted by excellent percussion work by Jeff Feder and Dan Toot on cajon and bongos.
Once Pericles sets out from Antioch, he encounters storms at sea and his wrecked ship is able to provide grain to save the citizens of Tarsus from famine. Later he lands at Pentapolis, where he meets King Simonides (Kevin Gudahl), who also has a marriageable daughter, Thaisa (the vivacious Lisa Berry). Pericles wins a match against other knights and thus the hand of Thaisa. A banquet ensues with dancing and music. Later he learns that he must return to Tyre to take the now-vacant throne. Thaisa is about to give birth to their child and she does so at sea in the midst of a storm. Her nurse Lychorida (Ora Jones) informs Pericles that he has a daughter, but no longer a wife. Pericles must bury Thaisa at sea because of the seamen’s superstition that a corpse on board ship will doom the voyage. But her coffin is rescued and—surprise—she isn’t dead after all and is revived in a clever scene starring Ross Lehman as Cerimon, a seer of Ephesus. Pericles asks Cleon, the governor of Tarsus (Torrey Hanson), and his wife Dionyza (Lia D. Mortensen) to care for his newborn daughter, who he has named Marina.
Are you still with me? All that happens in act one. In act two, Marina (Cristina Panfilio) is grown up. Cleon and Dionyza now don’t have her best interests at heart, which brings us to the brothel. Bawd (Ora Jones) instructs an underling to seek out a virgin in the marketplace. “Take you the marks of her, the color of her hair, complexion, height, age, with warrant to her virginity; and cry ‘He that will give most shall have her first.’ Such a maidenhead were no cheap thing, if men were as they have been.” Marina ends up in the brothel and Bawd tries to explain how she will benefit by her work there, but she is saved by Philemon (Fortunato), who buys, but declines to take, her virginity. Lehman also plays Pandar in the brothel scene with his usual vigor.
At the end, all the trauma is over and the loose ends tied up. Pericles is reunited with his long lost daughter, and together, they find their wife and mother at the Temple of Diana.
Bell’s direction is sure and strong, but he has some excellent actors in his cast. Carlson, an experienced Canadian actor at both Stratford and the Shaw Festival, gets strong support from Chicago veterans such as Fortunato, Gudahl, Jones, Berry and Lehman.
“Pericles” is one of William Shakespeare’s late plays, written in 1607-08. It can’t decide if it’s a comedy or tragedy; perhaps the great Bard invented that modern genre, the dramedy? In fact, the play is grouped with Shakespeare’s late romances, which include “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest” as well as the lesser-known “Cymbeline”.
Most scholars think that Shakespeare had someone else write the first half of the play, and wrote the last half himself. Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom thinks that the writer was “a lowlife hack” named George Wilkins. “Even by the standards of Shakespeare’s London, Wilkins was an unsavory fellow—a whoremonger, in fact, a very relevant occupation for a coauthor of ‘Pericles’, although the superb brothel scenes are Shakespeare’s own work.” Although the last half of the play is more coherent and better written than the first half, the CST production manages to make it all an entertaining whole. The length suggests that not many of Shakespeare’s words were trimmed and the play could use some more judicious editing, especially in the long first act.
“Pericles” runs through Jan. 18 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Performances are at varying times Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $48-78 and can be bought online or by calling 312-595-5600.
This review was previously posted on gapersblock.com/ac/.