BACK STAGE WEST
August 19, 1999
at the Angus Bowmer Theatre
A theatregoer stumbling into this Pericles without a playbill or prior knowledge might think he was watching a lost translation of a forgotten Homeric epic. He wouldn't be too far off. For Shakespeare consciously harked back to the Greeks, both the bards and the dramatists, with this fantastical picaresque narrated by a chorus, and director Laird Williamson has not only mounted it magically here but made a case for it as a kind of timeless epic theatre that echoes down through the centuries, to the beginning of storytelling and song, and right back up to the present.
Indeed, as staged here for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Williamson's Pericles practically feels like an echo chamber of mythological and heroic references, rippling back to Job, Aeneas, even Oedipus, and forward to Don Quixote, Candide, and the brothers Grimm--all accomplished, I hasten to add, on a bare stage flanked by vaguely Greco-Roman shuttered flats and a handful of props and gauze (scenic design is by Ralph Funicello), in colorful costumes that suggest storybook antiquity (by Deborah M. Dryden), and fluid lighting by Chris Parry that fills in some key elements of weather and time. Williamson has taken Shakespeare at his word, when his narrator, Gower, gives the game away: "In your imagination hold/This stage the ship, upon whose deck/The sea-tost Pericles appears to speak."
In Williamson's version, the company sings Gower's narration as a masked Greek chorus, to music by Todd Barton that is at times lyrical but is more often a kind of unison intonation that sounds very 20th-century retro, a la Orff or Stravinsky. The play's loveliest moments are sealed by song--when Pericles (Richard Howard) woos his lady Thaisa (Vilma Silva) with a folksy duet, and his lost daughter Marina (Jodi Somers) later sings it back to him when he's deepest in his grief.
The actors prove yet again that OSF's resident company is almost supernaturally capable of morphing to a director's vision--whether it's straight naturalism, all-out commedia, or, as here, an innocent, unironic presentational style which gives these archetypes full purchase on our imagination, and eventually our emotions. The gaunt Howard is an evocatively brittle Pericles--he looks like one of those storms at sea might snap him in half, but he hangs on, movingly, until age and ill fortune almost finish him off. And though she has relatively little stage time, Silva's modest radiance and quiet yearning as Thaisa is central to the production's successfully straightfaced fairy-tale romantic vision. If Shakespeare strove to take audiences back to the childhood of his medium, Williamson and his cast likewise transport us to a kind of timeless collective childhood at the feet of a bard who knows our deepest wishes and fears.
"Pericles," presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. July 31-Oct. 30. $14-49. (541) 482-4331.