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Sunday, 31 May 2015

Review: The elegant symmetry of Scott Wentworth’s Pericles

The Adventures of Pericles, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Scott Wentworth
Designed by Patrick Clark (set / costumes), Kevin Fraser (lighting), Verne Good (sound), John Stead (fights)
Composed by Paul Shilton, with some lyrics by Marion Adler

Evan Buliung as Pericles (centre) with members
of the company. Photo by David Hou
What is it indeed that gives us the feeling of elegance in a solution, in a demonstration? It is the harmony of the diverse parts, their symmetry, their happy balance; in a word it is all that introduces order, all that gives unity, that permits us to see clearly and to comprehend at once both the ensemble and the details.  ~ Jules Henri Poincaré
These words from Jules Henri Poincaré, were used in describing mathematics, but could also be applied to the result of Scott Wentworth’s direction on the sprawling epic that is The Adventures of Pericles.

For those who are unfamiliar with these tales, please take a moment to read a synopsis here. You will be glad you did before going to see this production, and you must go see this production.

You must see this production not only because Pericles seldom produced anywhere (at Stratford only four other times in the Festival’s 63-year history), and not only because it is a beautiful fairy-tale of a story, but because this production is the epitome of elegance from its Victorian costumes, through its inclusion of song, in the actor’s performances, and right down to its staging.

To understand this, one must understand just how expansive this play is. Shakespeare had help writing it (George Wilkins), it is set in six different kingdoms around the Aegean Sea and the action switches among them at great speed. There are at least 24 identifiable characters, plus the various lands’ various lords, ladies, citizens, prostitutes, priestesses, fishermen, sailors, pirates, servants and knights. The degree to which one must be willing to suspend one’s disbelief is high. In short, the play is as vast as the ocean itself.

Mr. Wentworth’s solution: get rid of Gower and let the entire cast provide the chorus, then create a series of mirrors: the cast playing fishermen will also play pirates; the women playing priestesses will also play prostitutes and princesses; the person playing the bad king will also play the good king, and so on. At every turn of the globe one sees the same faces, but in different circumstances and thus lighter or darker reflections of themselves. Thaisa, Pericles’ wife, is played by both Deborah Hay and Marion Adler; Deborah Hay also plays Marina, Pericles’ daughter, and Marion Adler also plays Diana, the goddess whom protects both Marina and Pericles. What a tangle, one might think – but give one piece a tug and it forms a perfect double triangle. (The triangle becomes a visual metaphor throughout the play, but let’s not give away everything before you see it…)

Deborah Hay as Marina.
Photo by David Hou.
This paradox works itself out in the most beautiful staging: at the end of the plays first half, we see the maid Lychoridia (Marion Adler again) – who will later become Thaisa - holding the infant Marina. Lychoridia gazes across the stage into the eyes of Thaisa – who will become Marina in the play’s second half.  Thaisa is in fact, looking at her older self, holding Marina – the only time Thaisa holds her infant – while elder Thaisa looks on her younger self as she is led away to join the priestesses of Diana. A mirror within a mirror – a perfectly elegant solution.

As with any seafaring adventure (in my humble opinion) there should be a fair amount of music, and thanks to the Celtic-infused talents of Paul Shilton there is far more music in this version of the play than usual.  Most lovely is a deceptively simple air referred to in the program notes as “The Pearl”, a melody sung both by Pericles as he is falling in love with Taisa, and later by Marina as she is trying to revive the melancholy king. Far from weighing down the play, these tunes give the tale an even more fairy-tale-like quality, thus further disarming anyone looking for realism.
Wayne Best as Siminides (centre) with members of
the company. Photo by David Hou.
The realism is provided by the incredibly strong ensemble cast whose real enjoyment of this play simply shines.  Nearly every performance holds a small surprise – Stephen Russell gives Helicanus not only the necessary faithfulness but also an unmistakable air of command – no wonder the folks of Tyre want him in charge.  Claire Lautier shows the hardness of Dionyza but also gives her the protective instinct of a mother-bear. Antoine Yared's Lysimachus is less loathesome than dignified. Brigit Wilson’s Bawd is funny yes, but much warmer than one expects. Randy Hughson’s Bolt is less crude than world-weary, Wayne Best gives the good King Simonides not just the heartiness he needs but also an endearing giddiness (completely unexpected from the actor known for his bad-guy roles).

Helmed by Evan Buliung as Pericles (the one cast member not required to double-up on characters), Mr. Buliung gives a star performance as a model king who feels too deeply for his country and own family.  Deborah Hay has the job of playing both wife and daughter but she is easily believable and delightful as both, and the reunion scene between them as father and daughter is poignant, conjuring many happy tears indeed. And Marion Adler, doing quadruple duty as priestess / Lychorida / Diana / Thaisa is remarkable in that she anchors the entire play without ever imposing herself over it, supporting the cast in their love, honesty and humour whenever necessary. What a gift she provides both cast and audience.
Deborah Hay as Marina and Evan Buliung as Pericles.
Photo by David Hou.

In short, this production has all the elements I personally adore – sea-faring, romantic adventures, fairy-tales and maritime melodies, as well as meticulously crafted theatre. To quote a less notable source on the elegance of a well-executed project: “I love it when a plan comes together.”

The Adventures of Pericles continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 19th. It is my pick for the sleeper hit of the 2015 season.

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