Shakespeare's 'Pericles' Is Soaked in Whimsy

John Tillotson's King Simonides is happy to marry his daughter, Princess Thaisa (Julia Coffey), to the much-embattled title character (Thomas M. Hammond) in
John Tillotson's King Simonides is happy to marry his daughter, Princess Thaisa (Julia Coffey), to the much-embattled title character (Thomas M. Hammond) in "Pericles." (By Scott Suchman -- Shakespeare Theatre Company)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Director Mary Zimmerman made an unconventional splash on Broadway a few seasons back by staging the myths of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" in a large rectangular pool, playfully soaking actors and the folks in the front rows. For Shakespeare's storm-tossed "Pericles," Zimmerman uses not a drop of real water, but evocatively sets model ships bobbing across oceans of blue silk. The exercise in make-believe is different but no less captivating.

Zimmerman's "Pericles" was a hit at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theatre in 2004, and now director David Muse has faithfully revived it for the company's annual Free for All (no charge for tickets) presentation at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. The show has a slightly different but equally able cast, and in any case it was never a star-driven enterprise. The villains and victims of "Pericles" are hardly the deepest roles in the canon.

In fact, the bald melodrama and extreme improbability of "Pericles" -- plus the dubious authorship of the first two acts -- make it one of the least frequently staged of Shakespeare's plays. It has a crazy plot: Pericles, prince of Tyre, offers to solve a riddle to win the fair daughter of Antioch's king. He sensibly balks when the answer uncovers a secret that the dreaded Antiochus doesn't want revealed.

Pericles runs for his life and is buffeted by fate to far-off lands -- a starving country to which Pericles delivers wheat (and his daughter, in a big mistake later), a sublimely lighthearted court, a sinister brothel and more. Shakespeare knitted these great leaps of time and place together with a choral figure named Gower, who narrates along the way.

In Zimmerman's tapestry, these choral bits are handled by various characters reading now and then from a book, occasionally with surprisingly comic results. Potentially headlong transitions are turned into storybook adventures, with composer/sound designer Andre Pluess providing a sort of cinematic score to accompany the fluid stage pictures.

In other words, the simple ravishments Zimmerman devised in the Lansburgh Theatre have arrived intact at Carter Barron. It all unfolds in Daniel Ostling's stately playroom of a set, a great pale space with three towering windows, a narrow balcony, a set of double doors and a magical cupboard out of which might spring, say, an ocean. It's a pleasure just to watch the scenes change color via Mara Blumenfeld's lush costumes and T.J. Gerckens's seasonally evocative lighting design. The story relies on wonderment, and this production delightedly plays along.

That includes the actors, who perform in a bold comic fantasy style that translates pretty naturally through the amphitheater's necessary amplification system. New faces include Thomas M. Hammond, who delivers a gentlemanly Pericles; Julia Coffey as Thaisa (emitting schoolgirl coos as the giddy princess who marries him); John Tillotson as the jolly Simonides (Thaisa's father); and Rick Foucheux in a lewd double turn as the creepy Antiochus and the brothel's smutty Pander.

Among the returning actors: Marguerite Stimpson as the beguilingly innocent Marina (Pericles' daughter); Michelle Shupe archly renders Dionyza (a queen who has it in for Marina) and the ethereal goddess Diana; Bernard Burak Sheredy as the stoutly loyal Helicanus; Naomi Jacobson is the gleefully wicked Bawd; and Sarah Marshall plays the wide-eyed sensitive physician, Cerimon.

It all charms, thanks to Zimmerman's rare facility for navigating between ceremony and fun. She sees the roundness in the story -- the contrasting familial relationships that bracket the play -- and the emotional power that accrues to Pericles' unlucky losses.

One last dazzling image sails us toward the impossible romantic ending as the show discovers real water after all: tears.

Pericles , by William Shakespeare. Directed by David Muse; original direction by Mary Zimmerman. Choreography, Daniel Pelzig; music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch. Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. Through June 4 at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. Visit

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