Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ears Gladded, Eyes Pleased at Blackfriars

A last-minute decision to join the Shakespeare Explorers' Meetup group's planned weekend excursion to the Blackfriars Playhouse/American Shakespeare Center (I don't know which is the container and which is the thing contained) in Staunton, Virginia, took me on a pre-foliage-season Saturday morning/noon/early-PM battle with bumper-to-bumper traffic. The rewards: a venue I'd never visited, a play I'd never seen, and friends I wanted to keep close to despite a summer of frugal nonindulgence in the arts.

Pericles produced at Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia. Photo by Lindsey Walters, courtesy of American Shakespeare Center

Gregory Jon Phelps as Pericles, overlooking audience at Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Lindsey Walters, courtesy of American Shakespeare Center.

The matinee performance of Pericles, Prince of Tyre delivered on the prologue's promise "to glad your ear and please your eyes." The venue and the production both were audience friendly, even chummy at times as the actors engaged with those nearest the stage. When Bawd (Allison Glenzer), the madame of a brothel, complained of her lack of sufficiently enticing stock, I was glad that she was pointing to the females in the other side of the audience and not on my side:

We were never so much out of creatures. We have but poor three, and they can do no more than they can do; and they with continual action are even as good as rotten.

The so-indicated creatures in the audience were good sports about it, however. All in good fun. Since I didn't have time to read the plot summary before the performance, I didn't know what to expect. Pericles just isn't as familiar to this aging former English major as are the greatest hits, the Romeos, Hamlets, and Macbeths.

The program notes report that the artistic director, Jim Warren, knew this play would be unfamiliar to the audience, and he specifically called for clarity "of words, thoughts, sentences, and story." For the most part, these instructions were well followed, and my only trouble was in following the plot line of the first of three father-daughter stories: the incestuous King Antiochus and his unnamed daughter, which sets up the good-versus-evil machinations.

The problem I had was that the daughter was played by the same actress (Sara Hymes) as someone else's virtuous daughter, Thaisa, who becomes Pericles's wife. It can be an interesting artistic choice to have the same actors playing "mirrored" parts (as in Shakespeare Theatre Company's Winter's Tale), but unfortunately I did think it was the same character. When I finally realized it wasn't, I wondered what happened to Antiochus and benighted daughter.

Temporary confusion aside, I enjoyed the second half of the production a bit more than the first half, and Harold Bloom (in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 1999) explains why: "The first two acts of the play are dreadfully expressed, and cannot have been Shakespeare's." The attribution for the dreadful parts went to George Wilkins, "a lowlife hack."

The second half of the play, Acts III through V, are of Shakespeare's glorious hand and voice in the depictions of the drama's lives low and high, from the brothel scenes (As Bloom notes: "Shakespeare surpasses all possible rivals in the gusto with which he portrays the oldest profession") to the climax of Pericles's reunion with his lost wife and daughter: "The 150 lines of the recognition scene (V.i. 82-233) are one of the extraordinary sublimities of Shakespeare's art. ... Shakespeare holds us rapt."

It seems, though, that everyone's favorite parts were the pirates, and the actors played their modern pirate accents up to full cartoonish comedy. Arrrrggghhhh!! Arrrrggghhhh!!

Lauren Ballard as Marina, flanked by pirates Patrick Midgley, James Keegan, and Chris Johnston. Publicity photo by Michael Bailey, courtesy of American Shakespeare Center. 

The glorious second half of this play belonged to the character of Marina, Pericles's daughter, whose indomitable virtue turned lechers into saints. I liked that. Usually you never think that innocence is a trait worth cultivating, associating it instead with naivete or even helplessness. But Marina's virginity wasn't that kind of innocence; it was a virtue with the power to instruct, to tame, and ultimately to lead. And she was portrayed by Lauren Ballard with every bit as endearing a performance as the far more comical corollary, Philia, in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

For it was truly the rewards of all this goodness that brought tears to this sentimental old creature.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre
By William Shakespeare
Blackfriars Playhouse, American Shakespeare Center, Staunton, Virginia, through November 28, 2014
Director: Jim Warren
Costume Designer: Jenny McNee
Set Design is not credited; Blackfriars Playhouse emulates original stage conditions. As explained in the program notes: "Shakespeare's company performed on a large wooden platform unadorned by fixed sets or scenery."

René Thornton Jr. (Gower, the Chorus)
Gregory Jon Phelps (Pericles, Prince of Tyre)
Sara Hymes (Thaisa, Pericles's wife; Antiochus's daughter)
Lauren Ballard (Marina, Pericles's daughter)
James Keegan (Antiochus, King of Antioch; Bolt, servant of Pander and Bawd)
Patrick Midgley (Helicanus, Pericles's friend and counselor; Pander, brothel owner)
Allison Glenzer (Escanes, a counselor; Lychordia, Marina's nurse; Bawd, Pander's wife)
John Harrell (Cleon, governor of Tarsus)
Sarah Fallon (Dionyza, wife of Cleon; Diana, a goddess)
Jonathan Holtzman (Simonides, Thaisa's father; Philemon, Cerimon's servant)
Chris Johnston (Thaliard, an  assassin; Cerimon, Thaisa's protector)
Benjamin Reed (Leonine, an assassin; Lysimachus, governor of Mytilene)

Sara Hymes (Thaisa) and Gregory Jon Phelps (Pericles). Photo by Lindsey Walters, courtesy of American Shakespeare Center.

René Thornton Jr. (Gower, the chorus). Photo by Lindsey Walters, courtesy of American Shakespeare Center.

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