Warning: Do not allow an excessively complicated story to scare you. Pericles, showing at the Shakespeare Theatre on 7th Street, is actually a silly, soap opera tale of a bedraggled king that encompasses more than 16 years, several countries, persons presumed dead and various ship-crushing tempests. The plot “summary” in the playbill covers several pages of miniscule print and fills the audience with trepidation for what lies in wait behind the billowy white curtain.
But theatergoers should know not to fear this tiny type and instead be prepared for transportation into a richly imagined fantasy world. Pericles is often regarded as Shakespeare’s worst writing, saddled with the double burden of disputed authorship and staging issues, as this is an extremely active piece with competitions for fair ladies’ hands, marauding pirates and four royal courts. But director Mary Zimmerman takes an overly complicated but silly plot, clarifies and shapes it into a beautiful fairy tale, filling the stage of the Shakespeare Theatre with all manner of delicious colors and characters.
One of her most effective directorial choices is to bounce the narrative voice of Gower, traditionally a crusty old man with a cane, between numerous characters. Time collapses and expands with the narration, easing the transition from one scene to another, setting up new scenes while wrapping up old ones. Not that there is any reason to criticize the transitions – not a single movement is wasted by anyone in the ensemble. Even hand gestures (with the blatant and odd exception of Ryan Artzberger who, in playing the title role, continually and obsessively tucks his hair behind his ears) have been meticulously planned, every stage crossing carefully scripted, every prop wielded with precision.
Watching this unequivocal, lavish visual feast, you cannot help but feel you have fallen into a delectable autumnal dream, with deep hues of gold, red, orange, and crimson drenching the bare blue-gray Shaker-inspired set. The bare hardwood floor and vertically elongated set pieces continually draw the eye upward, making the humans appear small in this enormous set. Indeed, the characters in Pericles may be viewed as helpless pawns in the hands of the gods. But damn, they look good.
Zimmerman imported her own set (Daniel Ostling), costume (Mara Blumenfeld) and lighting (T.J. Gerckens) directors, and we are thankful. The lighting beautifully compliments the set, making use of tall, dramatic windows by flooding them with daylight, darkening them with storms, snow or leaves and illuminating characters who jump in and out. The costumes straddle several centuries and continents without any awkwardness, each one correct for the character and all cut from the seductive fabrics. They somehow manage to be both plain and extravagant, similar to many of the set pieces and props that evoke new settings with only the merest suggestions. The most simple props are also the most effective; a bare branch conveying the drought and desperation of a starving kingdom, or a large swatch of blue fabric to suggest a roiling sea.
The delicate piano music and intermittent dance sequences charm, lending to the dreamlike quality of the production. The only time during this nearly three-hour fantasy that you may be suspicious of this creation is the final scene, in which everything wraps up far too neatly. The goddess Diana comes to Pericles in a dream, directing him to her temple, where his entire family is reunited after 16 years of separation. The room fills with a faint smell of Velveeta when Marina (daughter of Pericles) cries, “My heart leaps to be gone into my mother’s bosom,” while the newly reunited family, dressed in white, kneels on the floor together to pray to the gods above. However, these flaws are inherent in the text and cannot mar the otherwise exquisite beauty of the show.
Pericles will be at the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. NW, until Jan. 2, 2005. Tickets are $23-$68.