NEW YORK—The Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit does an absolutely fantastic job with their production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Containing elements of drama, pathos, comedy, love, loss, incest, shipwrecks, pirates and the ultimate truth that those of good moral fiber will triumph over adversity, the result is one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences in recent memory.
Prince Pericles (Raffi Barsoumian), ruler of Tyre has traveled to Antioch to win the hand of the King’s daughter (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart). However, he must first solve the riddle her father (David Ryan Smith) has created. Failure to do so will mean the Prince’s death. While puzzling out the riddle, Pericles discovers the dark secret of incest the King and his daughter share and flees the country in disgust.
The King sends an assassin in pursuit of Pericles to ensure he never tells what he has learned. Knowing he is under a death sentence, Pericles goes into hiding, after first selecting the trusted Helicanus (J.D. Webster) to rule in his absence.
Soon after, Pericles finds himself shipwrecked on the coast of Pentapolis. Befriended by two fisherman and receiving a divine sign from the sea, he makes his way to the court of King Simonides (Smith), where he falls in love with the King’s daughter Thaisa (Stewart), winning her heart and hand.
However, on the couple’s voyage back to Tyre, their ship is caught in a mighty storm, in the midst of which Thaisa gives birth to a daughter before perishing in childbirth. Thaisa’s body is placed reverently in the sea to satisfy an age-old superstition.
Containing elements of The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, it’s easy to see why Pericles is not done more often. For one thing, the script contains close to 40 characters, many of whom appear briefly and are never seen again. Also, there are some huge action scenes in many different locations. Even with a continuing descriptive thread covering the various shifts of place and time, it’s still a tall order to make the show work correctly. And, after the plot follows Pericles through the first two-thirds of the story, the play shifts focus to his daughter Marina (Flor De Liz Perez), changing the rhythm of the tale somewhat while the audience must now decide whether to follow someone new.
Fortunately, the extremely talented cast of eight is more than up to the challenge, with Rob Melrose’s superb directorial work keeping the action flowing smoothly and the numerous transitions appearing virtually seamless. While Pericles is usually thought of as a comedy or romance play, there’s also great drama present as the hero undergoes many trials before being offered a chance to be made whole.
A key point occurs when the now-teenage Marina attempts to keep her virtue intact after being captured by pirates and sold to a brothel. This moment could come off as corny or maudlin, but instead treads a perfect middle ground while putting across the message that the virtuous will not only survive, but also bring redemption to those who will listen. One potential customer of Marina ultimately finds this out.
Barsoumian makes a prefect Pericles, the hero of the piece and a man who will gladly help those less fortunate while never forgetting the debts he himself owes.
Stewart is excellent as both the daughter of King of Antiochus and as Thaisa; alternately projecting shameless seduction and wholesome beauty when called for.
Ben Mehl is particularly appealing as the assassin on Pericles’ trail, a rather lascivious pirate, a competitor for Thaisa’s hand and the would-be killer of Marina; he offers a twinkle in his eye and an air of menace in his characters—sometimes at the same time.
Smith nicely shows both good and evil as Simonides and Kings Antiochus, while Webster gives a refreshingly loyal portrayal of Helicanus via his refusal to succumb to the temptations of power he holds in trust.
Perez works well as Pericles’ daughter, showing just the right amount of youthful innocence coupled with conviction and faith. Amanda Quaid is excellent as a burned-out brothel madam and the jealous queen plotting Marina’s demise.
Director Melrose and movement director Christopher Weldon have quite effectively staged the work in the venue’s rather small playing area. Spectators are seated on all sides with only a large table, book and a few props to tell the tale.
The audience’s imagination and some quick costume changes help to establish the needed illusions as the company conjures up everything from shipwrecks to a jousting tournament to a temple of the gods.
Good work also by scenic designer Wilson Chin, costume designer Moria Sine Clinton and composer Michael Thurber. There’s even a little audience participation at points.
Pericles is great fun from start to finish, the only complaint is that the production will end its run too soon. For those who have the chance to see the Public Theater’s presentation of this often neglected work, by all means go! Well done!
Also in the cast is Christopher Kelly.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or PublicTheater.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Closes: Nov. 30
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.