by Richard Dodds
The bad parts of Pericles, Prince of Tyre are so bad that almost no one believes that Shakespeare at his worst could have written them. No one knows for sure, but common wisdom holds that Shakespeare wrote most of the second half of the play, with the first half, possibly with Shakespeare's assent, coming from the pen of a shady fellow named George Wilkins. Interestingly enough, as director Mark Wing-Davey slashed away text for his Berkeley Rep production, he made no effort to preserve Shakespeare's words over Wilkins', using whatever dialogue best served his stylistic storytelling agenda.
And that agenda? Tough to say. There are plenty of anachronisms in speech, costume, and physicality that give the old tale a hook into the present. Do they help illuminate an arcane work for a contemporary audience? Probably not much. But this production is almost always in a theatrical roil of some kind, suggesting Brechtian openness but without so much of the angst.
Imagine a variation on a rug being pulled out from under you. You are up-ended. But in another scenario, the rug is only tugged, leaving you to wobble a bit before regaining balance. Wing-Davey is tugging, as when cooing young lovers hit the sack with burlesque energy that, with a tug on the rug, is then altered by a ballet pose that gets a bemused laugh while negating the bawdier laughs of the bedroom scene. When an onstage downpour is needed, the narrator hauls out a water gun attached to a fire hose and pulls the trigger. It's funny as a brutal redefinition of the magic of theater.
The plot of Pericles takes the title character to many places, meeting many people, and having numerous adventures that prove his noble mettle. Even with the heavy cuts to the text, the new script by Wing-Davey and Jim Calder touches on many of the key scenes, but their truncated form seldom leaves time for rumination. Instead, cue the actors costumed as Batman and Robin to lark about the stage while the band provides twanging quotes from the Batman theme. Neither low- nor highfalutin' reasons for this action can be deduced in this space.
The key figures are Pericles, himself royal and humanist, and the various lovers, wives, children, and villains he meets in exile after guessing a king's shameful secret. He sails into a series of realms that treat him well, and eventually his loved ones long thought dead emerge as the title character at last gains a family. The spirit in which we are always being tugged is revealed at the beginning with Music Director Marc Gwinn loping on stage in T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops to lead the audience into intentionally inane sing-alongs.
The device promotes a just-kidding vibe, but there are still heartfelt moments that find a home in this production. And there are a number of standout performances, but David Barlow's thin performance as Pericles, both vocally and in essence, is a notable exception. Jessica Kitchens, abetted by the engorged shoulders on Meg Neville's costume, is good at conjuring sweet evil as a murderous queen. Annapurra Sriram brings lighthearted moments as a fisherman using a playful variation on a Hindi accent before returning as Pericles' feisty long-lost daughter. James Carpenter adds polish in several elder roles, most notably the imperious king whose threats send Pericles to a life of adventure.
It may be hard for some to get into the swing of this Pericles, an observation based on one man's experience. But as the second act unfolded, all the pieces with their uneven edges began fitting together – whether from a director's talent or an audience member's wishful thinking.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre will run at Berkeley Rep through May 26. Tickets are $29-$77. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org.