A Noise Within kicked off its 2013-2014 repertory season Saturday with a play about a great leader searching for meaning and justice in the Middle East. No, this is not the dramatized version of President Barack Obama’s dealings with Syria; this is Pericles, Prince of Tyre, one of Shakespeare’s most epic works.
Pericles follows the life of a young prince in pursuit of a wife. After a series of mishaps, he falls in love with a virtuous princess, they marry and all is well. When his wife dies in childbirth, however, his entire life quickly falls to pieces. But since this is a Shakespearean comedy, the ending provides a happy resolution and, of course, a wedding.
For theatergoers in the early 17th century, when this play was first produced, seeing the story of Pericles would have produced the same exhilaration that summer popcorn flicks like Pacific Rim inspire today. Pericles is a Jacobean summer blockbuster complete with sweeping romance, heartbreak, incest, mystical healing, goddesses, prostitutes, hit men, pirates, two shipwrecks — two! — and lots of jousting.
“All this in one play?” one might ask. “But, how?”
Well, it’s a strain. Successfully weaving together scenes in disparate locations and meandering thematic elements was a task the Bard himself struggled with. Some scholars even posit that Shakespeare only wrote approximately half of Pericles, collaborating with another (apparently inferior) playwright on the first several scenes. Between the awkward 14-year time jump that occurs in the middle of the play and the seemingly haphazard scene order, it’s damn near impossible to keep this play from feeling disjointed.
The creative team behind this production of Pericles, however, pretty much pulls it off. They achieve a sense of cohesion through two brilliant directorial choices. The first is the casting of powerhouse A Noise Within regular, Deborah Strang (who absolutely carried last season’s stunning production of The Grapes of Wrath as Ma Joad) as the story’s narrator, Gower. Strang shoulders the role of storyteller with darkly comedic panache, trudging around the theater like a gothic Mary Poppins with a suitcase full of severed heads. Gower’s exposition-heavy monologues are helpfully pantomimed by a troupe of creepy white-clad ballerina/clown/mimes who wear signs with character names and end up providing the audience with a sort of roadmap to each scene. The consistency established by Strang’s Gower is compounded by the significant use of double-casting. Using the same actor to play two different roles can be obnoxious or confusing if executed poorly, but when done well, as in the case of Pericles, double-casting can provoke metaphorical analysis of character relationships. Jason Dechert, for example, portrays both the regal young Pericles and the Russell Brand-esque pimp who buys Pericles’ daughter, Marina, thereby shedding light on the variety of paternal figures in her life. Similarly, Jules Willcox portrays Thaisa, Pericles’ wife, for the first half of the play before returning as Marina for the play’s duration, highlighting the notion that Marina is nearly identical to her mother in both appearance and demeanor, but also raising some questions about the quasi-romantic bond between this father and daughter pair.
In addition to killer performances by the aforementioned actors — it is no small feat to switch between character mindsets mid-play — the bizarre ballerina/clown/mime ensemble provides gorgeous movement and dance that saves this production from falling into the cut-and-dry tedium of some productions of Shakespeare. They stole the show a handful of times, especially during the sex scene, which would be uncomfortable if it weren’t so beautifully performed, and the somehow hilarious “horse dance” during the jousting tournament scene.
As is always the case with A Noise Within productions, every technical aspect of the play was of top-notch quality. The impressive set consisted of a looming wall of whitewashed doors, drawers and cabinets snugly fit together Tetris-style, with opening panels to create multilevel picture windows for ensemble members to appear. The rich jewel tones of the elaborate costumes stood in intriguing contrast to the light backdrop and similarly bright lighting scheme, making for some arresting stage pictures. The sound design was near perfect, aside from a brief lapse into a melodramatic string ballad during the tearful reunion of Pericles’ family.
Pericles marks the first installment of A Noise Within’s season that focuses on the theme of “Lost & Found.” The rest of the season promises to be at least as excellent as Pericles, including Molnar’s The Guardsman, Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, A Christmas Carol, Tartuffe by Moliere, Macbeth and William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba. Though the journey all the way to East Pasadena can be lengthy, the superior quality productions at A Noise Within are always worth the trek.
With the first day of autumn fast approaching, indulge in one last dose of summer blockbuster-style fun while still feeling high-brow with Shakespeare’s Pericles.