Jagged Shakespeare 

SubShakes' Pericles is puppet-and-mask-ridden madness.

SubShakes production of Pericles: Prince of Tyre, one of Shakespeare's lesser-known comedies, is amusing, if lightweight. It's definitely bumpy: The actors don't all seem to be in the same play, there are a few unintentionally humorous moments, and the text itself is jagged for reasons I'll get to, but it's an interesting show for anyone who likes the "shipwreck and lost loved ones" side of the Bard's repertoire. And it goes well with pizza and beer. Pericles details the adventures of a prince who wins and loses a lovely bride and daughter and then gets both back after many intrigues and adventures. Shakespeare drew from three literary sources for this play, borrowing most heavily from John Gower's Confessio Amantis and making Gower the narrator. His lines are thus written in a different, more archaic style than the other characters'. In the SubShakes production, Gower's lines are divvied up among the cast.

To add to the mishmash, there's an unresolved authorship question. The language of the first two acts is neither as graceful nor assured as that of the last three. So who wrote them? Some think that Shakespeare rewrote someone else's play, starting with the shipwreck. I myself wonder if Shakespeare wrote the first two acts when he was just getting started, put them in a box and forgot about them, and then pulled them out and knocked out the last three acts when he had a deadline to meet. Also, the only extant version of Pericles is a pirated quarto that appears to have been written by people who saw the play and then rushed home to scribble it down. Pericles is not in the "First Folio," the canonical compilation made seven years after Shakespeare's death. So there's only one highly suspect version cobbled together by persons unknown. And it shows: while the SubShakes cast makes a valiant effort to keep audience attention in the beginning (especially in the matter of the lamia puppet representing King Antiochus' daughter/ lover), this thing really starts to roll at the beginning of Act Three.

To all these inherent challenges director Jon Wai-keung Lowe adds some interesting yet not always effective choices. The resurrection of Pericles' wife Thaisa, for instance, while clever in its use of a tiny puppet, led my companion to ask, "Who's the widow waiting for the bus?" Double- and sometimes triple- and quadruple-casting parts make sense when you're a small company working in a small space, but only if the actors can keep all of their characters straight. In this show, some seem to just give up, hamming their way through indiscriminately. Stanley Spenger manages to play Pericles with great clarity and presence in the middle of this puppet-and-mask-ridden madness -- which is fun, though rather murky.


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