The Choppy Voyage of 'Pericles' Finds Safe Harbor at Berkeley Rep

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It's your average tale of shipwreck, incest, riddles, grain, assassins, fishermen, tournaments, true love, treachery, more shipwreck, pirates, brothels, divine intervention, and a great king reduced to a crazed and ragged wanderer. That is, of course, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, the Jacobean play usually credited to William Shakespeare, although many scholars believe that he wrote about half of it, his likely collaborator said to have been a justly obscure writer named George Wilkins.

The play is all over the place, in more ways than one. Having nothing to do with any historical Pericles, it's an adaptation of the popular medieval yarn of Apollonius of Tyre, the convoluted tale of a young Lebanese prince's adventures and misadventures all over the Mediterranean. Curiously, the play is narrated by 14th century poet John Gower, who wrote an early English version of the story.

Although it's not one of Shakespeare's more popular (or better) works, it hasn't exactly been neglected lately; both California Shakespeare Theater and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival did it in the summer of 2008. Now Berkeley Repertory Theatre is staging it as the theater's first Shakespeare play since 2001. That's also the year that acclaimed British director Mark Wing-Davey last directed a show at Berkeley Rep. (Though he'd been a frequent presence up till then with great productions of works by Caryl Churchill, Bertolt Brecht, Naomi Iizuka and George Farquhar.) Wing-Davey's return to the Rep proves worth the wait, as he conjures a sparkling staging that injects some magic back into the hoary shaggy-dog story.

Does Pericles suddenly seem like a masterpiece? Oh, good heavens, no. If you're looking to see if this Shakespeare guy was any good, this isn't the best place to start. But as productions of Pericles go, it's an awfully good one. Wing-Davey has cleverly pared down the story, cutting several scenes and characters, and makes good use of a versatile ensemble of eight actors.

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There's a playfulness that pervades the production that sometimes has the quality of throwing things to the wall and seeing what sticks -- but it works much more often than it doesn't. Heads of cabbage are substituted for the severed heads of the slain. Several scenes are acted out in stylized dumbshows by actors in paper-plate masks. A tournament of knights from many nations includes some amusingly familiar pop culture characters. A bouncy springed platform does double duty as a tempest-tossed boat and the marriage bed in a surprisingly explicit and ultimately hysterical lovemaking scene. Played by an onstage trio with percussionist Jeff Holland and cellist Jessica Ivry, composer and musical director Marc Gwinn's score is superb, with Middle Eastern and bluesy touches, somber chants and playful hints of popular tunes.

Costume designer Meg Neville gives the incestuous King Antiochus (a sinister James Carpenter) a colorful robe that looks like something out of a Gustav Klimt painting, and the treacherous Queen Dionyza of Tarsus (a compelling Jessica Kitchens) has sleeves with bulging shoulders like turkey drumsticks. The good King Simonedes (Carpenter again, delightfully playful), walks around in robes with his smiling face emblazoned on them.

Walking onto the stage in a trenchcoat and carrying a suitcase, Wing-Davey's life partner Anita Carey makes an entrance curiously reminiscent of the storyteller in An Iliad that recently played the same space. For that matter, Peter Ksander and Douglas Stein's spare set has a warehouse-like quality, like the scenery for that other production. But the similarity ends there and is surely a coincidence.

Gower is combined with the faithful lord Helicanus, whom Pericles leaves as regent of Tyre in his absence, and who scarcely exists as a character in this particular production, and Carey gives this omnipresent narrator a gentle gravitas even as she's training a hose on Pericles to conjure a storm at sea. David Barlow's Pericles has a soulful sincerity that's heartbreaking in his grief and delirium late in the play (the part generally thought to have been written by Shakespeare).

The cast is uniformly strong. Carpenter lights up every scene he's in, and Kitchens is a luminous Thaisa, Pericles's bride. James Patrick Nelson plays two murderers walking in extreme slo-mo and has an amusing turn as a debauched governor. Annapurna Sriram is a bright presence as Pericles's daughter Marina, thought to be dead while she's protecting her chastity in a whorehouse run by the seedy comic duo of Evan Zes and Rami Margron. But many of the best parts are almost throwaway moments, such as Zes's turn as a passerby who keeps correcting the healer who finds a presumed corpse washed up on the shore.

Not every aesthetic choice really serves the story. Gwinn and the ensemble lead the audience in a song that doesn't have anything to do with the play and feels like an overlong bit of stalling. The somber ending doesn't quite carry the resonance that it seems to be going for. But if there's a hodgepodge quality to the production -- tossing in a little bit of this and a little bit of that in a burst of hyperactive creativity -- it's a quality appropriate for a troubled classic that's slapped together in much the same way.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre runs through May 26, 2013 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.

All photos courtesy of mellopix.com.