MSF makes problematic ‘Pericles” family friendly
CANTON, MI–Stories are important. They help us know who we are, where we came from, how we belong and, perhaps most importantly, that tragedy does not have to overwhelm us or be the end of our story.
At the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, they are retelling the story of “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” adapting it in a way that makes it a family-friendly story filled with playfulness and joy to leaven the tragedy and heartbreaks. Director Robert Kauzlaric reshapes this infrequently done play, a play that was likely only half-written by Shakespeare and is problematic with the early incest storyline.
In this production, Kauzlaric cut those scenes entirely and he consolidates the journeys of Pericles, making the story easier to follow, emphasizing the romance and beauty of the tale.
The story opens with Faith Berry’s Marina gathering in her son (played by Lance Johnson) to tell the story of her family, starting with her father, Pericles. In this telling, she also serves as the chorus, sharing history with her son who is on the verge of his maturity. Berry infuses the role with the sort of grandeur and majestic presence one expects from an all-knowing chorus figure, but keeps the humanity of the role. Yes, she is monarch and narrator, but she is also mother and daughter, and this is her story.
Kauzlaric fills the story with a playfulness, putting toys in the hands of Marina and the others she directs to act out the family’s saga.
The opening scene immediately sets the stage for what is to come: There is grandeur; there is intimacy; there is beauty; there is fun. Scenic Designer Evan Frank creates magic with fabric that acts as an ocean and a transition between scenes. Together with Dustin D. Miller, the projections designer, they move the audience from one coastal city to the next, allowing the action to flow quickly.
Costumer Aly Renée Amidei contributes to the feeling of the fantastical with her creations accented with sheer draperies, richly woven textures and brocade, many done in deep palettes of purple and green, evoking oceanic imagery. Everything about the show is a visual delight, underlined with Kauzlaric’s careful staging of actors to create stunning stage pictures.
Warren Jackson plays the princely title character, a man of honor and generosity who starts transforms from youth to venerable ancient throughout the course of the show. The play opens with him announcing that he plans to set sail to search for a wife and he is leaving his friend and advisor Helicanus (played by MSF veteran Alan Ball) to govern in his absence.
Jackson’s charisma is one of the reasons this production of “Pericles” is so endearing and works so well. The audience sees him through the eyes of his daughter, and the lens is one of affection and respect. Jackson wears well the mantle of a hero, one with few flaws who must endure external hardships and losses. The play follows him as he wins and loses a bride, attempts to govern wisely and eventually falls into a stupor when his losses become too heavy to bear.
Throughout it, Jackson carefully measures out the prince’s energy, infusing him with dollops of dignity, playfulness, shyness and sorrow.
The scenes in Pentapolis are particularly fun, from when Pericles first washes up on shore and encounters a cadre of helpful fishermen to the tournament scenes where he competes for the favor of the princess, to the scenes where he falls in love and is granted a bride.
It is here that the ensemble gets to shine, from the three philosophizing fishermen to the comedic knights who participate in the tournament.
Equally delightful are the scenes between Simonides, king of Pentapolis (played by Rico Bruce Wade), Pericles and Thaisa, daughter to Simonides (played by Jaelyn Raiford). Raiford delights as the princess in charge of her own fate, knowledgeable about each of her suitors and knowing just how to play everyone to get what she wants. The chemistry between her and her father and her and Pericles is warm and it strengthens the story, underlining that it is being told by her daughter.
Wade welcomes the audience into the joy and gaiety of the story, bouncing between the dignity of a monarch and the merry sport he plays with Pericles and Thaisa. It further infuses a warmth into this show.
Throughout the tale, each performer contributes to the vision of this telling as one being told to a young man. While various villainies are shown, they rarely get center stage. Instead, virtue and resilience own the spotlight.
“Pericles” is a production that leaves the audience feeling optimistic and hopeful. It entertains from the opening sequence to the final bow. While many versions of “Pericles” are problematic because they hew too closely to what has survived as the canonical version, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival production shows the best version of the story in a manner that is uplifting and meaningful to contemporary audiences.