For years scholars and other experts have been unkind to Shakespeare's "Pericles," dismissing it as the Edsel or New Coke of the canon.
Most viewed the show as at best a mixed bag of disjointed adventures, or at worst, not even written by the Bard.
That, however, was a challenge for Joel Sass, who took a fresh look at the play and readapted it. He turned the tribulations of the Prince of Tyre into a breathtaking, completely engaging and joyously theatrical production at California Shakespeare Theater.
"Pericles," which opened the Cal Shakes summer season in Orinda on Saturday, is part Saturday morning serial, part soap opera, part comedy and tragedy in the Greek tradition, and a whole lot of fun.
Purists may harrumph at producing a 40-character play with only eight actors; some wildly funny mugging in comic scenes; or the fanciful theatrical effects, such as a tiny boat carried across a rippling piece of blue silk to simulate Pericles' many voyages around the Mediterranean; or the fanciful, foot-powered horses. Yet all that works incredibly well to create the lifelong dreamscape that is Pericles' life.
And, it's a stem-winder of a story beginning when Pericles, the prince of Tyre, faces a death sentence for refusing to wed the daughter of an incestuous relationship. The refusal launches years of wandering that takes him to adventures all around the Mediterranean, where he meets and loses his one true love, has a daughter he must leave in a foreign land and wildly battles across a lifetime to a rapturous ending.
Enhancing the dreamlike state of the piece is a masterful casting that has the different actors playing oddly juxtaposed roles. For example, the woman in the incestuous relationship (Sarah Nealis) also plays Marina, the daughter of Pericles (Christopher Kelly). The hilarious King Simonides (Danny Scheie), who blesses the marriage of his daughter Thaisa (Delia MacDougall, who also plays the owner of the bawdy house where Marina finds herself trapped) to Pericles, also plays a hunchbacked procurer who delivers Marina to a bordello.
The performances from the actors in the different characters create a delightful variety of accents and styles that make for wonderful watching. And the story, from murders, and kidnapping by pirates to heartwarming reunions, keeps the pace quick and entertaining.
"Pericles" is performed on a beautiful Melpomene Katakalos set, dominated by a tree formed into an arch, and Middle Eastern rugs on the ground and hanging from walls that give the stage an exotic African/Mideast look.
Reach Pat Craig at 925-945-4736 or pcraig@bayareanews group.com.