Chicago Shakespeare Theater. By William Shakespeare. Directed by David H. Bell. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 45mins.
Theater review by Kris Vire
For being the noble prince of Tyre, Pericles can’t seem to catch a break. He solves a king’s riddle to earn the hand of his daughter, but ends up instead on the run with a price on his head. He finds love with the princess of another land, but she dies in childbirth. He leaves his infant daughter in the care of another royal couple whose land he earlier saved, and the wife becomes so jealous of her she tries to have her murdered as a teenager. And yet everything ties up in a remarkably happy ending.
It’s believed this late Shakespeare work was likely written in part by a second author, and the disjointedness of its storytelling buoys that idea. Director David H. Bell’s new production at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre feels like it doesn’t really kick in until about half an hour in, and there are stretches after intermission, particularly in the long slog to said happy ending when we know what’s coming and are waiting for the characters onstage to catch up already, where you might find yourself peeking at your watch.
Yet this grand-scale, 22-actor staging offers real pleasures elsewhere. Bell jettisons the awkward framing device of medieval poet John Gower, instead removing the play from any specific time (Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s inventive costumes and Scott Davis’s gorgeous set designs suggest a fantasy setting) and dividing the play’s narration up among the members of the ensemble.
Some elements of Bell’s staging are overly busy—the projected flames behind evil king Antiochus seem more appropriate for Jekyll & Hyde, and scenes in which Pericles keeps moving blankets from one chest to another or a mass of sailors repeatedly rearrange ropes to suggest a storm feel like nervous embellishment.
But Henry Marsh’s original score is thoroughly lovely—a choral number in Pentapolis, where Pericles meets his wife, Thaisa, in which the entire cast joins in intricate harmony (Ethan Deppe is the music director) left my mouth agape. The entire Pentapolis sequence, in fact, which also includes a mass battle with staffs (fight choreography by Wesley Truman Daniel and Max Fabian) and a joyous group dance number (presumably choreographed by Bell—there’s no credit), is the show’s highlight—along with Ben Carlson’s precise, impressively rangy and often unexpectedly comic work in the title role.