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.