Suffering Shakespeare 

A frontier Pericles and a mangled Merry Wives.

Shakespeare season is now at its height, and the companies that do one of the Bard's plays every year are coming out of the woodwork. Kenneth Kelleher directs the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's Free Shakespeare in the Park show, as he does every summer. Skipping Oakland for the second year in a row, making remote Pleasanton its only East Bay stop, for once the company's not sticking strictly to the greatest hits, picking instead the tangled adventure yarn Pericles that Cal Shakes just finished staging.

Like most of Kelleher's productions, it's centered around a strong visual concept that doesn't particularly serve the text. This time it's an Old West production of Pericles that doesn't feel like a modern production set in the 1800s so much as one performed by and for frontiersmen. It's a clever idea, occasioning some terribly thick twangy accents that gradually vanish over the play's 160 minutes.

Richard Ortenblad's bare-bones set consists of simple planks painted with a seacoast map, to which the names of cities are affixed willy-nilly with no particular regard for geography. Mark Koss' delightful costumes include a lot of poofy dresses and parasols, top hats and tails. The cast doubles as musicians playing a whole lot of old-timey folk, country, and spirituals.

Dispensing with the narrator Gower, the ensemble takes turns recounting Pericles' misadventures, which include shipwreck, incest, tragedy, unlikely reunions, and an attempted murder foiled when the victim is suddenly abducted by pirates and sold into prostitution.

It's often hard to understand what the actors are saying, between the heavy drawls, microphones that pick up footsteps as easily as speech, and actors competing with singers who are better miked than they are. Michael C. Storm as Pericles tends to overlook his body mike when clutching things or people to his chest, leading to lot of rustling sounds over the speakers.

Emily Jordan is a marvel as true love Thaisa, completely transformed in the role to become every inch the gawkish young teenager in love. The way she's mirrored by Siobhan Doherty as her daughter Marina is striking.

But limp performances in key roles (Antiochus, Simonides, and often Pericles) add to the illusion that this show could easily be going on in the background in Deadwood, better suited to being a play within a play than the play itself.

Subterranean Shakespeare also currently puts on one full production a year, staged readings and Shakespeare-song concerts notwithstanding. This year it's The Merry Wives of Windsor performed as a clown show, with everyone in wacky, colorful getups by Bessie Delucchi and painted clown cheeks.

It's not a bad idea on the face of it. Merry Wives is a very silly play, a spinoff of Henry IV histories in which the fat knight Falstaff tries to seduce two of the town wives.

Unfortunately, the performers seem to know next to nothing about clowning. None of the humor comes from Shakespeare's dialogue, which is generally mangled into incomprehensibility, but instead from squeaky voices, ham-handed slapstick, and a lot of prancing around. It's the sort of show that makes you regret having ever complained about other shows that were far more bearable.

The only performances worth watching are those of the titular wives, who aren't onstage nearly often enough to make the rest of it worth suffering through. Alexaendrai Bond makes a sly and effervescent Mistress Page, and Rebecca Pingree is extremely over the top as a very ditzy Mistress Ford, giggling and jumping into the air, but in a hysterical way that suggests she actually knows what she's doing. Artistic director Geoffrey Pond gets Falstaff's licentiousness right but isn't the least bit funny. Stuart Hall has appealing jealous rage as Mr. Ford, but the stuff with his goofy disguise is baffling. The rest of the show is just horrible.

It's performed on the floor of the Berkeley Art Center at Live Oak Park, with no set other than the art on the walls and the audience seated at either side. By far the funniest part of the show is watching the scowls of confusion on the faces across the way.

The play is divided so that intermission comes after nearly two hours, with 45 minutes remaining. It's as if director Katja Rivera wants to squeeze in as much plot as possible before people have a chance to flee, while practically ensuring that they will.

The night I attended, half the audience left at intermission, most of them on the same side of the stage. The only person who had noticeably moved from the empty side to the full one was one man seated near the door who was jerking his head at his wife across the room to make a break for it. Then the play started up again, all doors were in use by the actors, and they weren't going anywhere. It was comic and tragic at the same time. 

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