8 June 2003: Shakespeare and others, Pericles

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. (N.B. Not Pericles, Prince of Tyre.) Direction and Movement by Andrei Serban

A truly spectacular mounting of the play. The shortened version of the title is presumably deliberate; this usually indicates some degree of adaptation made from an acknowledged original. Here, the “adaptation” is to a New Age, Asian-flavored eclecticism, a composite style featuring wonderful, surprising costumes, partial nudity, video projections used both to carry the dramatic sequences forward, sometimes, and to complement them with analogous, sometimes folk-oriented dancing and movement, and highly imaginative use of set pieces and other stage resources — the whole superimposed on Shakespeare’s play to such an extent that we often lose sight of the play itself. The object Andrei Serban seems to have had in mind was not to interpret the play but to cloak it in a new garment, a shimmering costume that will at once entertain the audience, filling always its eye if only sometimes its mind (and seldom its heart) and serving as an anodyne therapy in these troubled times. In an interview with the A. R. T. dramaturg, Gideon Lester, three weeks into rehearsal, Serban said that in these times people don’t want to go to the theatre to see more of the global tension of the day replicated on the stage; they need something “in a time of war to help protect the world.” Shakespearean romance is his answer. He believes that the “subtle message” of the play is “that there cannot be peace on Earth until there is peace in Man.” The play itself is “an allegory,” and Pericles functions as “an Everyman who must journey through the world until he reaches maturity.”

The perennial problem with spectacle on the theatrical stage is that it tends to become its own justification, an end in itself; and the history of Shakespearean mise en scène is a history, since Restoration times, of tending to drown the poetry in what people in the cultural know now call “eye candy,” a phrase repulsive to some but one that nonetheless captures the idea quite well. Even Serban himself understands this danger, evidently, to judge from the way he stages the last-act reuniting of Pericles and his long-lost and presumed dead daughter Marina. To prepare for this potentially moving scene Serban clears the stage of all set pieces and all characters except for two traditionally clad mariners, who slowly propel about the stage the open boat in which Pericles, long-haired and unwashed, sits in motionless despair as his long-lost daughter tries to call him back from the limbo in which he dwells. A midnight blue drop curtain up stage is the only scenery in this intense scene in which Marina’s eloquence and purity of heart summon Pericles back to the land of the living. Evidently, this scene is too important to be overwhelmed by decor. But if that is so (the logic running in my mind during the scene led me to reason), why do we need the sumptuous engrand­izing (I coin the word) of the rest of the play? I began to long for a much more spare, quasi-Japanese style of mounting, or an adaptation to the sticks-and-bones stage of a latter-day W. B. Yeats, a stage on which Shakespeare’s language would reign supreme throughout, and not just in the climactic scene of reunion. Sounding gongs and tinkling cymbals drowned out much of what is vital in the “allegory” of the play, in this production.

That said, I must add that it is quite a show. A number of images remain with me, including the initial one of a square white tent, canopied, and light enough to be carried across the stage by two men, as it continues to be lighted luminously from within (how did they do that?), and a later one, a tremendous staircase, in profile, ascending as if to the heavens, at the top of which resides the half-nude goddess Diana, voluminous black hair cascading over her white shoulders, bow and arrow in hand. Perhaps the most sumptuous of all, the translucent coffin in which Pericles’ “dead” queen, Thaisa, is brought back to life from her watery grave. Light from unknown sources — perhaps underneath the rising floor of the circular trap on which it was placed — illuminated the still body of the queen, covered in a large, deep-colored cloth which, when removed by attendants, revealed the nude body of the queen, her hands cupping her breasts, with some kind of luminescent purple foam all along the base of the (plexiglass?) coffin. Stunning, and moving.

The acting was good, for this extremely well rehearsed and well disciplined company. The guest artist was Robert Sella as Pericles, who spoke the verse clearly and was, on the whole, a credible Pericles, except in the most important scene, the reunion with Marina. In the moments of recognition I heard unconvincing tones in his voice, heard him resorting to clichés of emotion instead of finding more personal, authentic truths in the language of the revelation. And I hold Serban at fault for this; having expended so much artistic energy on the conception and implementation of the scene (and of the play overall), he had no time, it seems, to work with Sella enough to get the all-important sequence of recognition and its joyful aftermath right.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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