Minor Miracle

Though the story's flawed and the effort uneven, St. Louis Shakespeare's production of Pericles manages to salvage some moments

Jul 18, 2001 at 4:00 am
Pericles, Prince of Tyre is presented by St. Louis Shakespeare (they've formally dropped "Company" from their name for the opening of their 17th season) as part of its mission to produce the playwright's entire canon. In Will's day, Pericles was one of his most popular works, but now it's rarely produced, and it's not hard to see why. Even though it's a ripping good yarn, with enough plot for a year's worth of Saturday-morning serials -- it includes incest, two shipwrecks, swordfights, romance, attempted assassinations and, finally, a happy ending -- the play lacks the grand overriding themes and fully developed characters of a Macbeth or Hamlet. Pericles is a benign ruler who literally floats from episode to episode, reacting to fate's twists as he tries to just do the right thing; the play might be subtitled When Bad Things Happen to Good Kings. The lack of a central objective for the character and the large shifts in tone (it's believed that Shakespeare wrote mainly the last three of the five acts) are problematic.

Director Donna Northcott brings cohesiveness to the proceedings, most cleverly by using her ensemble as a chorus to break up the episodes. The choreographed use of large sticks as both props and percussion instruments, along with the Mediterranean-style set design and costumes by Patrick Huber and Carla Landis Evans, respectively, bring a primitive, ritualistic quality that reflects the mythic elements of the story. Northcott is excellent at visualizing the action; she uses dumb-show effectively, and her staging of the shipwrecks is especially theatrical and neat to watch. Andy Neiman makes Pericles appealing and likable; we want everything to come out right for him as he suffers the perceived loss of both his wife (Linda Meade) and daughter Marina (Hannah Joyce). Joyce is a fine actress, carrying the second act when Marina becomes the center of the action.

Kevin Beyer stands out in the ensemble as the droll Simonides; Beyer always seems to be having fun onstage, and his enjoyment is contagious. Todd Gillenardo makes a strong impression as the evil Antiochus (making his entrance on a 10-foot throne), and Myah Shaw is impressive in her minor roles and as the goddess Diana, who watches over the proceedings and finally brings order to the chaos.

Sometimes the variation in the play's tone proves too much for director and cast, most notably in a troublesome brothel sequence, when Marina has been sold into prostitution. The brothel owner and procurer (Penney Kols and Christopher Jones) go for broad laughs while Joyce plays her impending rape in a realistic and heartrending manner, which only makes the comic characters seem ugly and cruel. For some reason, costumer Evans puts these characters in modern clothing (including camouflage army pants), which, along with some too-bright pirate costumes and out-of-place sunglasses, are jarringly out of sync with the rest of the production design.

The play suggests that benevolent forces are watching over us, waiting to reward us if we lead good lives. It apparently was an old-fashioned concept even in 1608; the opening narration apologizes for the quaintness of the story. But it's still a comforting idea, and this production of Pericles sends us happily out of the theater feeling that perhaps it might actually be so.