All the talk about the "magic" of the theater may seem silly, but clearly there's sorcery at work when a college group can take an unpromising mess of a play that's only partly by Shakespeare and full of disjointed episodes, abrupt changes in tone and highly improbable events, and turn it into a thing of enchantment.
That's what has happened now that the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre has gotten hold of Pericles, a script classified as the first of Shakespeare's late romances. It's likely that Shakespeare borrowed a play by somebody else, lightly touched up the first two-fifths of it and then gave the remainder a wholesale rewrite. Is it a comedy? A tragedy with comic relief? The term "romance" seems to fit all right, not in the lovey-dovey sense, but insofar as it means an adventure narrative or a story full of extraordinary events.
The title character (a fictitious king of Tyre, not the historical Athenian leader) must, on pain of death for failure, solve a riddle to win the hand of a foreign princess (shades of Turandot). But once he succeeds, he learns that more than just the girl's heart belongs to daddy, and he flees in disgust, trailed by an assassin sent by the foreign king in an attempt to confine his incestuous secrets to the royal bedchamber.
Almost immediately, this plotline breaks off, as Pericles delivers food to a famine-stricken neighbor nation, then is shipwrecked and washed up on shore with nothing but his underwear and some rusty armor. He enters a local joust, and then romances and eventually marries the local princess, but nine months later, she dies in childbirth during a storm at sea. Her body is cast off in a sealed coffin, and Pericles leaves his new daughter in the care of fickle friends who, some 14 years later, contrive to have her killed but instead see her kidnapped by pirates who sell her to a brothel, where she defends her virginity by lecturing her would-be clients on moral behavior and good housekeeping. Meanwhile, the dead princess has been revived by a kind wizard and sent to serve in a nearby temple of Diana (an ironic parallel to the daughter's destination, considering the ritual prostitution that went on in some of those temples, but Shakespeare was surely ignorant of this).
Eventually, Pericles (remember him?) is reunited with both daughter and wife, and almost everybody lives happily ever after, except for a couple of people who die offstage.
Not exactly a play that plumbs the depths of the soul, nor one that even bothers to develop the characters beyond mere types and archetypes. And with the story swerving wildly all around the eastern Mediterranean, Shakespeare finds it prudent to call in a narrator to keep us abreast of events, rather than having everything revealed through action and dialog.
And yet, despite such unpromising material, this UA production is one of the most consistently engaging and smartly imaginative of the school's several Shakespeare productions these past few years.
The exuberant first half stars director Brent Gibbs and his design team, especially scenic designer Hilary Noxon and costumers Jennifer Dasher and Patrick Holt. The lights come up on a set dominated by the rotting and all-too-anthropomorphic ribs of a ship's hull, with a dark, stony orb looming in the sky. From the sides, white-garbed figures walk in, then back a little, then in again, like waves washing upon a beach. Later, the more civilized characters assume a simplified Renaissance look, while the denizens of barbaric lands have layers of furs and skins piled high upon their shoulders and imaginative headdresses, and carry staffs topped with human skulls.
One of the most arresting sequences begins with the joust. Gibbs is the UA's resident expert in stage fighting, but he must have tied himself to the mast during this scene; there's no combat, really, but instead a slow round dance for six men and six poles, in which Pericles prevails with a single climactic gesture. Then Pericles engages in a witty but not campy tango as he courts Thaisa, his bride-to-be. (Credit Molly Rice with the choreography.) Later comes an especially beautiful sequence in which Pericles guides Thaisa's coffin into the waves, or more specifically, the hands of the undulating white-clad ensemble.
The second half leaves spectacle behind, and Gibbs strips away most of the stage business to focus on the characters themselves. The one problem with this production is that it's populated by college students, almost all of them in their early 20s, and so there's an inevitable homogeneity to the look of the characters. But Gibbs does something brilliant that may confuse some viewers at first, yet actually strengthens the drama.
This comes late in the story, when the middle-aged Pericles is about to encounter the daughter he believes to be dead. All along, Joey Snider has been an engaging, valiantly good-natured Pericles, but he may be too much a youthful Candide figure to carry the dramatic weight of this scene. So, deftly twisting the meaning of a reassigned line in the script, Gibbs temporarily gives the role to the one over-30 actor on stage, D. Lance Marsh, who up to this point has played John Gower, the poet-narrator, with a truly commanding presence.
Marsh has no problem mustering the weariness, sorrow and appearance of premature age necessary for this scene, which is unexpectedly touching and unaffected. Later, when Snider resumes the role, it's clear that Pericles has been reborn, in effect, through this reunion. Of course he has; resurrection, along with conciliation, is one of Shakespeare's major themes here.
Cara Manuele, it should be said, is quite good as Marina, the daughter. She seems innocent but not naïve, and her main scene with a threatening pimp is kindly and cajoling rather than derisive; unless you insist on a justifiably vituperative Marina here, this is perfectly in character. Mandell Maughan also stands out as Thaisa, the temporarily dead wife.
In general, the large cast acquits itself well, although some actors have a firmer grip on some of their multiple characters than others. A general consistency of approach plays down Shakespeare's disruptions in tone, although you may wonder if you've stumbled into a Gilbert and Sullivan show when the Robert Newton-like, "aarrr"-growling pirates arrive, or as you watch Jonathan Hicks do a Michael Palin impersonation along the way to playing Thaisa's kingly father.
In both plot and presentation, this Pericles is, in every sense of the word, marvelous.