By Tristan Lejeune
Shakespeare’s later “Romances” are challenging. Plays such as Cymbeline or The Winter’s Tale exist as neither comedies nor tragedies, though it’s really our modern sensibilities that are troubled: William didn’t categorize his work like that.
There are two basic ways to go about trying to stage one of these problem children. A cast and crew can wrestle it — like Jacob with the angel — and beat and hammer the show into what they need it to be. Make it a tragedy with lots of laughs, or a comedy with a tear in its eye. These productions find modern moments for the characters, or dig deep for Method empathy. Emphasize this, de-emphasize that, and pray for the best. It works more often than you might think.
Or, as with the triumphant Pericles happening now at the Folger, they can dance with it. Let it sing. There’s not a bad performance on the stage, but the actors forgo trying to “ground their characters in humanity” and find purpose instead in the Bard’s poetry. There’s not a shaky hand among the backstage leaders, either, but none of them are trying to show you “truth” or “reality” — they just want to show you a good play. As the title character would say, they shall prevail.
I rolled my eyes reading the program notes from director Joseph Haj when he said that Pericles “is only troublesome if one insists on its behaving like other plays,” but then he schooled me with two hours of exuberant storytelling, some of the best D.C. theatre you’ll see this year.
Wayne T. Carr leads as the title character, the Prince of Tyre, and a strong lead he is. He’s mighty bad luck on the high seas — do not go sailing with this guy — but the storms that toss Pericles from Mediterranean shore to Mediterranean shore are givers as well as takers. Fortune and family wash away from him, only to return as sure as the tide; Carr stands firm amid the ebb and flow, finding shades of Odysseus, others of Lear.
Carr is one of only two actors among the cast who plays but one part; the rest have at least two roles next to their name, and no one struggles with their load. The other one-off is Armando Durán as the poet Gower, narrating Pericles’s decades-long odyssey. Clad in linen with silver and aquamarine jewelry, Durán gives off a friendly hippie vibe, and he mingles with the amazing band, whose use of everything from cello to accordion to kazoo adds immeasurably to an already rich production.
The lights and sounds are Broadway-quality, the costumes expressive and fun. Projections of waves and stars serve as backdrops more elemental than geographical, and together it all casts an impressive spell. The set itself feels perhaps rather crammed into Folger’s wood-paneled space, like a gift bursting out of its box, and it must be said that in the battle of sweat vs. wigs and beards, sweat is winning in a blowout. But these are minor quibbles, and quickly forgotten.
Indeed it’s hard to think of much else when an actor such as Michael J. Hume transitions seamlessly from the stately role of Pericles’s No. 2 in Tyre into that of a bawdy fisherman, and then the actual Bawd at a brothel, and then back again. All three are great performances, taken together they feel almost indulgent. Meanwhile Jennie Greenberry is all smoke and smoulder as Antiochus’s daughter in the opening scene, then she wipes off the lipstick and (after a shift at the cello) disappears into the virtuous, virginal role of Pericles’s own child. And if Brooke Parks’s lovely Thaisa is the show’s soft underbelly, then her Dionyza is its Lady Macbeth.
Throughout it all, there’s beautiful music by Jack Herrick, including songs for several actors. It’s a song itself this show wants to give you. Life isn’t a comedy or a tragedy, it says. It’s a series of gains and losses, victories and defeats, and if you’re lucky you may cry out in the end, “No more, you gods! your present kindness makes my past miseries sports.”