Through a great arch of blasted oak shambles a mysterious figure, shrouded in a mantle disguising his face. Once unveiled, the rambler looks Moorish, or like some tattooed Tuareg tribesman. He is Gower (played by Shawn Hamilton), a pre-Tudor English poet, transposed to a Mediterranean identity, as he narrates the CalShakes’ production of the Bard’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
Pericles sprawls in a different way than, say, the histories often do. With an air of the fabulous, its protagonists are constantly on the move, and being blown off course, escaping from threats or seeking to be reunited with those lost along the way. The Aegean, Levantine and North African ports-of-call become verbal touchstones, summoning up a sense of mysterious antiquity—and of often-iniquitous deeds in the story: Antioch, Ephesus, Tarsus, Mytilene, Pentapolis—and Tyre.
It’s a romance, from the ancient tradition of embellished storytelling, though unlike Shakespeare’s comedies taken from old romances and Roman plays. For a long time, this difference in tone, an art of both appearances and indirection, made academics and reviewers alike, uneasy—it seemed most un-Bardlike. But Pericles has often proved its popularity with all kinds of audiences, and more modern styles of staging—including some hybrid with radio drama techniques—have restored the symbiosis of narrative and drama to the drawn-out tale of a hero in constant search.
But searching for what? Though complicated at first glance, the story is not hard to follow, though the upshot of all this wandering and wistfulness may prove a puzzle, if the audience isn’t content with just a happy end.
The CalShakes cast is ready for the shifting locales and identities, in any case. CalShakes associate actors returning to perform for another summer—Ron Campbell, Domenique Lozano, Delia MacDougall and Danny Sheie—are joined by Christopher Kelly (in the title role), Hamilton and Alex Morf, as well as Allison Brennan, Mairin Lee, Kristoffer Barrows and Daniel Duque-Estrada, to shape-shift into some fifty characters.
The regulars seem to keep growing as an ensemble (and Sheie and MacDougall particularly are in top form, slipping in and out of character, with the welcome addition of Morf’s equal flexibility and good comedic skills), with Joel Sass’ adaptation and direction rendering the constant, sealike flux of the tale—with its insistent, thematic chords—clear and entertaining, as the young Pericles seeks a worthy mate ... then pursues and mourns his losses along the way, later brought back from melancholy by miraculous reunions.
The fantastic element is discussed in the program by the eponymous Laura Hope, company dramaturg, bringing up Sass’ belief that the times are “hungry for miracles” and a use of archetypes to convey what has often been lost in scholarly arguments (one quoted being from the ubiquitous Harold Bloom) over Shakespeare’s exact role in the writing of this collaborative work.
With the participation of scholar Philippa Kelly as production dramaturg, who presided over last year’s excellent King Lear, and the facility of cast and production staff, there’s both a narrative clarity and delightful vignettes in Pericles, as the action flits from court to shipboard, bawdy house to temple, colloquy of fishermen over a huge catch and a castaway to a tournament for a princess’ hand, with much fun when the actors simulate equestrian footwork.
But something’s missing behind the bright, shifting surface, hinted at in the wistfulness of much of the tale. There’s a reason the story opens with a riddle of incest and brutal response to its unraveling, and why the assassins and slanderers who crop up either back off or are converted to friends of the beleaguered Prince and his family.
The specifically allegorical sense of these adventures—and allegory itself changes its face as quickly as the adventures themselves—seems to get lost, or downplayed. Maybe because of that persistent reticence that considers such modes of meaning are out-of-date and merely academic—though filmmaker Raul Ruiz has spoken at the Pacific Film Archive of the common coin of allegoric speech, even on Oprah (”There have been dark clouds in my life ... but I know Spring will come, the birds will sing ...”) and of its protean, poetic nature, constantly refreshing itself and its referents.
There’s a good discussion of the meaning of Pericles in the Arden Shakespeare volume, of the truly wonderful recognition scene between long-separated father and daughter (and, later, partly lifted from Euripides, husband and wife). The very facility of the multiform “presentational” stage techniques to further the flow of the narrative perhaps also drains the most significant tableaux of their primitive sense of wonder—that absolute touchstone of theater, in which (to paraphrase actor-director Oleg Liptsin) “the performance makes the spectators melt together into one, an audience” in an ecstatic present moment.