For devotees of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, this season is an embarrassment of riches. There have been not one, but two productions of Pericles by theatre companies composed of actors that work together frequently. One would think this might suggest a return to actual repertory companies where a group of actors commit to a season of say, five or six plays. In recent memory we have had the Pearl Theatre Company and the Jean Cocteau Rep, but sadly the business model has pretty much disappeared from the New York theatre scene, with the exception of the two companies attached to Pericles this season.
It has long been thought that Pericles was begun by another playwright, George Wilkins, and Shakespeare wrote only the last three acts. In its “final approved” script, it is quite long, so it does leave room for cuts and reordering of scenes in modern productions. Fiasco Theater mounted a lovely stripped-down production in their Without a Net series at Houghton Hall in October. It had some cuts, but then it also had musical numbers, with a running time of two hours. Target Margin Theater’s production has gone so far as to offer the script marked as “Pericles by Shakespeare and Others.” In this case, it is written by committee composed of members of the ensemble, the designers and the production team. There are times where this works well and there are times when the effect is rather jarring. When Pericles is asked “Hark you, sir, do you know where you are?” the honest response is “Not well.” Another actor chimes in, “We’re in Brooklyn, originally known as Lenapehoking,” hence the current land acknowledgments done in every off-Broadway space we can think of.
Act One has any plot issues dumbed-down for the widest audience, first in Shakespearean prose, then in contemporary vernacular, and then repeated in Shakespearean prose so there is no doubt. The uncomfortable “With whom the father liking took/And her to incest did provoke” becomes “The dude sleeps with his daughter, yeah, for a long time” and then the Shakespeare again, repeated for emphasis the way one learns Spanish with the Babbel app. Contemporary expletives (fill in the blanks) end sentences that begin with “Yo.” One funny exchange: “and I think Thaliard is basically like, well I’m just gonna say Pericles’ dead. Yeah,” with a response being “cuz the sea because the sea will probably kill him yeah.” If David Mamet and Suzan-Lori Parks had a Shakespearean baby together, this would be how ‘twould speaketh.
Whereas Fiasco performed their version in an oversized classroom at Houghton Hall with the audience seated on three sides, Target Margin opts for proscenium style where their audience sits in stadium style seating, with a fake proscenium arch positioned in profile to create some distance from the audience. The set has nothing elaborate – mostly metal folding chairs, a large metal table that is used for Thaisa’s coffin scene. Kaye Voyce’s minimal set forces the audience to focus on the actors – the audience must use their imagination for the traveling from one setting to another. The lighting design by Cha See is serviceable, but when actors are positioned behind the fake proscenium, to form a diorama, they are not lit. Dina El-Aziz’s costumes are fun, but are an excuse to merge fabrics that don’t necessarily look good together. The tulle ruffles, silver lamé and rabbit fur, and the multicolors and patterns are reminiscent of the outfits for the Clowns in Godspell, yet there often are costumes that seem period-appropriate.
David Herskovits must have looked at this as a true labor of love, but not all of the touches support the hard work of the actors. In some of the early ensemble scenes, the actors put on exaggerated courtly poses. The poses do nothing to further what is going on dramatically;, they appear done just for the sake of being bizarre. But Mr. Herskovits succeeds with the handling of deeply humane and touching scenes.
Act Five, where it all comes together, is calibrated so beautifully. Eunice Wong’s Pericles pulls at every heartstring. It is one of the most exquisite scenes in all of Shakespeare and Ms. Wong mines it for all the emotions you can possibly pull from it. Anthony Vaughn Merchant has that regal bearing without trying too hard as Simonides, and even more so as Lysimachus. Also standout is the vicious and calculating Dionyza of Hannah Tamminen and the touching choices of Shawn K. Jain’s Cleon and Cerimon.
It is always a treat to see the Shakespeare plays that are seldom seen. It is certainly evident that a lot of intense collaboration went into this production. It is sad though that some of the misguided ideas early on overshadow the inescapable beauty of the later scenes. Regardless of those missteps, it is very worth the trek into Sunset Park.
Pericles (through March 26, 2023)
Target Margin Theater
The Doxsee Theater, 232 52nd Street, in Brooklyn
For tickets, visit http://www.ovationtix.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission