Set sail for a postmodern "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" at Berkeley Repertory Theatre -- if you dare.
One of the least produced, not to mention least beloved, plays in the Shakespearean canon, "Pericles" is often classified as a late romance. It's also a dizzyingly epic adventure that roars through many different tones and genres in a manner that modern audiences find jarring.
Indeed, the authorship of the play is a matter of debate.
So perhaps it makes sense that director-adaptor Mark Wing-Davey approaches the piece as a rough and tumble theatrical playground where anything goes. Starting with an interactive singalong and chockablock with pop culture references from Batman to "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," this is a wild and woolly Bard mashup that alternately tickles and tires. But while there's no denying the wit of the concepts bandied about onstage, this "Pericles" blows hot and cold for its tempest-tossed two hours and 15 minutes.
To be fair, "Pericles" can often be a rough crossing. Not only does the play delve into dark subjects such as incest and prostitution, it also races through a mind-blowing romp involving pirates, shipwrecks and loved ones who come back from the dead. Hearts are broken, innocence lost, as our hero Pericles (David Barlow) goes head to head with mad kings, fickle gods and the cruel tides of fate.
Certainly, Wing-Davey -- the Obie-winning director ("36 Views," "Angels in America") -- lives up to his reputation for being insanely inventive. He has cut some characters, tightened the text and emphasized the role of the narrator, Gower (Anita Carey). The picaresque adventure unfolds on an industrial set (designed by Douglas Stein and Peter Ksander) that bursts with ropes and pulleys and hints at the atmosphere of rough magic.
He's also overstuffed the epic with cheeky allusions and bravura bits of stagecraft. At one point, Pericles does battle with the Dark Knight. In another scene, three-headed knights remind us of Zaphod Beeblebrox (the character Wing-Davey once played in "Hitchhikers"). A fire hose blasts at the stage to evoke a stormy sea.
But as whimsical as many of these moments are, they ultimately undercut the emotional intensity of the narrative. Moving performances are often upstaged by the winking attitude of the production. Ironically, it is in its most straightforward scenes that the play has the most power.
When Pericles changes his baby's diaper and hands her over to another's care or when Dionyza (Jessica Kitchens), ruler of Tarsus, bemoans the starvation of her people, the intimacy of the piece hits home. Suddenly, it's clear that Pericles' fantastical journey is a metaphor for all of our lives, the way we each brave the elements of loss, aging and death. When the text is delivered simply and forcefully, it's far easier to hear its insights into the nature of redemption.
Make no mistake, there are many lovely moments carved out. James Carpenter lends gravity to various and sundry monarchs. Kitchens transform from the ill-fated Thaisa to the evil Dionyza on a dime. And it's hard to resist asides to everything from Monty Python to the Doors.
But Wing-Davey's irreverent reinvention would work better if the production were a fast and furious 90 minutes. As it is, this "Pericles" doesn't quite sweep us along in its tide of experimentation.
'PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE'
Written by William Shakespeare, conceived by Mark Wing-Davey and Jim Calder
Through: May 26
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $29-$77 (subject to change), 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org