Sunday, August 28, 2016

Pericles at Bard on the Beach

I'm not usually a purist when it comes to radical revisionings of classic texts on stage. I do, however, take exception to reinterpretations that seem designed to make "difficult" plays--whether in structure or in moral content--more palatable to contemporary audiences. Unfortunately, in the case of Bard on the Beach's current production of Pericles, directed by the usually reliable Lois Anderson, that seems to be the case on both counts. A major compressing and rewriting of the first half results in the jettisoning of one of the play's distinctive structural conceits and the displacement and dematerialization of a key sexual theme.

I admit to not knowing Pericles very well, but I did have a quick read of the text before yesterday's matinee performance. Additionally, I was attending with my colleague, Tiffany Werth, who has published on the play (her work is cited in The Norton Anthology of Shakespeare, no less). Unlike most critics, who tend to be obsessed with accounting for which parts of the play were written by Shakespeare and which by his (of course) much inferior collaborator, George Wilkins, Tiffany concentrates on how the play's romantic and fantastical elements are filtered through a residual Catholic frame within post-Reformation England. Tiffany is not arguing that old Bill is a crypto-Catholic, as others have speciously suggested, merely that the genre of English romance in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods came to be read, in a society increasingly obsessed with policing and hierarchizing virtue, as carrying with it a certain Catholic taint. How this all relates to Pericles starts with the fact that each of the acts is preceded by a chorus narrated by the figure of John Gower, the more sober contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, and whose presence in Shakespeare's play suggests that we should be reading the tale of Pericles and his family through the lens of a Medieval morality play.

Indeed, Pericles can at a very basic level be reduced to an allegory of virtue rewarded and wickedness punished. That these outcomes are even more basically--and basely--linked to sex is established in the first act of the play, which takes place in the court of Antiochus, who greets any suitor wishing to marry his daughter with a riddle. If the suitor answers correctly, he can have the daughter's hand; but if he answers incorrectly, he is beheaded. (Needless to say, the walls of his court are lined with skulls.) Pericles (Kamyar Pazandah), hearing the riddle, immediately understands that Antiochus is having incestuous relations with his daughter. But he also realizes that to say so would likewise result in his execution. So he begs for more time and then hightails it back to Tyre, with the threat of Antiochus hunting him down setting in motion his subsequent maritime wanderings (to Tarsus and Ephesus and Mytilene) and the rest of the fantastical plot, including the birth of Pericles' daughter at sea and the apparent death of his wife, Thaisa (Sereana Malani), as a result.

In Anderson's staging, the story of Antiochus is narrated to us by the healer Cerimon (David Warburton), in whom the director seems to have collapsed Gower's chorus role, while also throwing in a dash of Prospero, with Cerimon having the ability to freeze and manipulate the action as needed. He does this ostensibly to bring not just us, but also his on stage captive audience, up to speed. This would be the young Marina (Luisa Jojic), the long lost daughter of Pericles, originally left by her bereft father in the charge of Cleon (Luc Roderique) and Dionyza (Jeff Gladstone), but following an aborted murder plot arranged by Dionyza subsequently captured by pirates and sold into prostitution. Still with me? Virtuous Marina is miraculously able to hold on to her maidenhead by convincing all of her clients to become better men, something that as Tiffany has written about would have been instantly recognizable to Shakespeare's contemporaries--not least through the remediating figure of Gower--as a rewriting of the story of St. Agnes of Rome.

But all of this happens much later in the play as written by Shakespeare. The effect of Anderson's temporal analepsis and narrative abstraction at the outset of her staging for Bard on the Beach is that Cerimon's storytelling to Marina declaws the shocking sexuality of the play in two ways. First, by reducing the opening act in Antioch to a dumb show involving pots and pans and a gilded bottle meant to stand in for a daughter who has for years been sexually abused by her father, Anderson turns an embodied act of violation into a mere speech act--and one relayed retrospectively at that. Second, placing Marina "in the know" about her father and the story of their separation early in the play means that when they finally come to be reunited in Mytilene at the end of the play the frisson of sexual misrecognition between Pericles and a woman he otherwise understands to be a prostitute is obviated, as is the pattern of ambiguous relationships between fathers and daughters that gets repeated throughout the play.

If all of this were meant to be read as a deliberate burlesquing of the play, that would be one thing (and some of the frankly cheesy choreography in the first half of this production put me in mind of this possibility). But, notwithstanding all of the sexual punning that is such an important part of the text, I don't think a camp aesthetic is what Anderson was going after. Instead, I suspect that the desire to resolve the moral and narrative tensions inherent in Shakespearean romance by emphasizing a happy ending (this being a common temptation with works like The Tempest and Cymbeline as well) led to this staging's unwitting emphasis on the normative rectitude of family. Even the goddess Diana is transformed into a beneficent figure, with the last insult for Tiffany the fact that we learn nothing of the violent revenge wrought upon Dionyza and Cleon.

In the end, the whole production was just too light, a tone that even carried over into the sandblasted costume and stage design. As Tiffany and I both agreed upon exiting the theatre, we prefer our romance a little darker and messier. Cue those skulls in Antiochus's castle.


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