The mood is set for William Shakespeare’s Pericles before you even take your seat. The stage, glowing with deep blue light, dominates the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, and the air is still, as if the theater itself is waiting with baited breath. Almost before the audience realizes, the stage slowly fills up with a band of costumed players, plucking and tapping at instruments until what first sounds like a rehearsal becomes an exotic tune that sweeps you from Brooklyn to Pericles’ magical world.
Pericles is an often-overlooked Shakespeare play, and director Trevor Nunn has used its mystery to his advantage. The former director of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and England’s National Theater, Pericles is the 35th of Shakespeare’s 37 that Nunn has directed. Another milestone for Nunn is that this production marks his first time working with an American theater company. The story follows Christian Camargo’s Pericles on an unusual Mediterranean hero’s journey. We are taken along through love and loss, birth and death, tempests and deserts. Camargo breathes new and vigorous life into a timeless character. He also manages to create a natural flow of empathy between the audience and Pericles, an Odysseus-like prince most of the audience may never even have heard of. Pericles’s every adventure, whether as lovelorn prince or ruined old man, captivates.
There’s something for everyone in Nunn’s production, from Pericles’ labors of self-discovery to the strong feminine will of his daughter Marina and his wife Thaisa, played respectively by Lilly Englert and Gia Crovatin. Thaisa and especially Marina shine with a display of fortitude that match Camargo’s Pericles. Raphael Nash Thompson’s Gower, the classic Shakespearean narrator, steals the show as a charismatic story teller who effortlessly lift the audience from Brooklyn to the fantastical lands of the Mediterranean. The many countries to which we follow Pericles are conveyed through vibrant outfits by costume designer Constance Hoffman, each distinct to the fictionalized culture it represents. There are white gowns with crimped golden hair to flowing black robes with tightly-wound headdresses, and every shape and color in between.
What’s more, the play is accompanied by music and songs, composed by Shaun Davey. Both the instrumentals and the lyrics help to transport the audience further into the strange world. The songs provide important markers in Pericles’ life – ranging from the lively wedding ensemble to the tender lullaby with which Pericles leaves his only child, Marina, in the hands of her caretakers. Marina later sings this same song to her then-estranged father, proving how the music can turn poignant moments even more powerful.
Amidst all the fantasy there lies a true humanity to Pericles, as in scenes dealing with the devastation of losing loved ones to a young girl’s unsettling encounter with a prison-like brothel. But the audience won’t walk away without a warm, fuzzy feeling. In fact, despite the seeming inevitability of the happy ending, you’ll find yourself tearing up – or at least suppressing a grin – as the cast takes their bow. Pericles is a colorful, visually rich and heartwarming adventure of a play that you won’t want to miss.