After five consecutive nights of high drama, an impressive body count, threats real or perceived and generous helpings of show tunes for the ages, The Adventures of Pericles was the perfect antidote to all manner of mayhem large, small or sung seen at Stratford so far in 2015.
But don’t get me wrong, this lesser-performed play is not all peaches and cream.
Lifting off with father-daughter incest, soon followed up by apparent death in childbirth, a very nasty shipwreck or two, murderous intent from a jealous, surrogate mother-for-hire, kidnapping by pirates most foul (ironically saving the day!), and a maidenhood, er, up for grabs, there’s no shortage of angst, nefarious predicaments and dirty work at the crossroads. But never mind: against all odds, this narrative—employing every coincidence in the playbook—sails unstoppably to a happy ending of enormous proportions (replete with an imminent wedding, no less!!).
On paper, Shakespeare’s script reads like a silly bit of froth which, understandably, would not be added immediately to anyone’s must-see list. However, in the hands of director Scott Wentworth—and fleshed out with a superb cast—this multi-location production truly engages from the git-go and seldom flags or sputters right up to the final audience-centric declamation: So, on your patience evermore attending/ New joy wait on you! Here our play has ending.
Having walked the Stratford boards for over two decades, Wentworth knows all of the Festival’s components (venues, troupe, production staff) like few others.
That “insider” knowledge is acknowledged and handsomely paid back by all concerned: the overall feelings on both sides of the “footlights” include love of craft, respect for the text and the marvellous ability—all too rare these days—of not taking one another too seriously. And thus the seamless shift from dire circumstances (loss of wife and child) to madcap comedy (just one highlight of which is the Knights Who Say Ni-like competition for the hand of a rich and alluring beauty—only the shrubbery was missing) can’t help but hold everyone’s attention.
On the acting front, Evan Buliung is a wonderfully versatile Pericles, whether wooing, commanding, bemoaning or deprecating himself. Here’s a range of characterization that gives the action much of its forward momentum and spark.
Deborah Hay is nothing short of superb playing two oh-so-distinct daughters (the dead-if-you-lose “prize” at Antioch; born-at-sea Marina) and Thaisa (wife of Pericles, mother of Marina). Always cognizant of the subtext, Hay shows extra brilliance by shading the younger characters (notably Marina) with a slightly girlish tone and also provides the best singing of the show as a mother of courage.
Also demonstrating his considerable talents, Wayne Best readily convinces as the slimy lecher (Antiochus) or late night talk show host in the much more complex role of Simonides.
Stephen Russell takes his jibes in stride and is faithful to a fault as Helicanus while the conversion of Lysimachus from strumpet-loving governor to respectful defender of the gentler sex (falling under the spell of a virginal whore) seems entirely logical thanks to the ability of Antoine Yared to employ quiet understatement when needed.
In the Mytilene brothel, Brigit Wilson’s Bawd doesn’t miss a trick while Randy Hughson’s Bolt is a deftly balanced knickers-diver turned sudden realist without losing a beat. (Marina becoming The Music Man of flesh peddlers and purchasers alike.)
As good as cast, crew and director are, what should further drive audiences into the steeply raked seats at the Tom Patterson Theatre is the fact that The Adventures of Pericles is one of the Bard’s most gender-balanced plays in the canon. It’s not just the men who live in the dark side of life (apart from Antiochus and a covey of pirates, Leonine—E.B. Smith is appropriately torn—accepts a commission of defenceless murder as a matter of course) but some of the women will also never make the shortlist for sainthood (especially the queen of jealousy, Dionyza—done up in chilling fashion by Claire Lautier).
With such richness of the human experience (good, bad and ugly) underscoring these adventures, there is not a soul on the planet who wouldn’t recognize themselves being played on stage, even if a few will deny their own truth. JWR