The Acting Company boasts a fellow who does impressions of Groucho Marx and a marauding whale, a couple of others who strum folk guitars, and still others with sendups of saloon singers. Strangely enough, these and similar talents are on display in the group's production of Shakespeare's "Pericles."
Stranger yet, it works.
At the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, there's a marvelous tension between the well-metered Elizabethan text and Toby Robertson's low-camp, zany staging. Sometimes the two converge, as when the hero describes himself as "A man whom both the waters and the wind,/ In that vast tennis- court, have made the ball/ For them to play upon."
A contemporary playwright could not have come up with a more up-to-date central metaphor; timeout comes in the cosmic game when an actor appears with a whistle in his mouth. Meanwhile, much of the staging -- with Franco Colavecchia's severe white set (with technicians and actors visible behind tinted panels), Judith Dolan's clever costumes and Dennis Parichy's inventive lighting -- conjures up a vision akin to punkrockers hitting Vegas.
But if the production takes all manner of liberties -- such as having actors in drag sporting bright blue-orange hair, or announcing a procession of knights as a fashion show -- it neither betrays nor belittles this play of love's labors found. Despite the caustic spin they give to many of the bard's conceits, and the antic foolery they make of others, the actors manage to convey a sense of epic wonder.
Shakespeare's tale -- based on the chronicles of the medieval poet Gower -- mainly treats the storm-tossed travels of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, his long-lost daughter, Marina, and, briefly, his hapless bride. There's incest, attempted murder, marriage, grief, magic and, after all that, a happy ending. Gower himself plays chorus to this mythical meander through the ancient Mediterranean.
The Acting Company's show puts the scene in an institution: of what sort, one can only guess. Gower, played with a perpetual smirk by J. Andrew McGrath, is a tuxedoed emcee who croons into a hand-mike to the strains of accordion accompaniment. Carl Davis and Jim Cummings supplied the sardonic music: folk songs, torch songs, and even a quote from the "Jaws" theme for Jack Kenny's whale impression, and another from "The Flight of the Bumblebee" for Ray Virta's line, "We would purge the land of these drones, that rob the bee of her honey."
Except for the actor in the title role -- Tom Hewitt as an earnest innocent -- the cast members take on several parts apiece, and change sex as easily as did the players of Shakespeare's day.
The evil King Antiochus, a David Bowie look-alike played by David Manis, fondles and kisses his sexpot daughter, played with conviction by David O. Harum. Likewise, Libby Colahan plays Helicanus, Pericles' stout best pal, as well as a midwife and the Goddess Diana, and the leggy Ray Virta, aside from playing a fisherman, appears in drag as Philoten, daughter to Margaret Reed as the wicked queen of Tharsus; later on, Reed plays Boult, the whip-cracking bouncer at a brothel, and Manis reappears as the whorehouse's screechy madam, while Harum returns first as a fisherman in a clown suit, then as a distinguished brothel patron who saves the fair Marina, played by Ronna Kress, who also plays Marina's mother.
While doing all this, the actors also draw on a dizzying array of theatrical traditions, up to and including the fashion show. For the knightly procession, Richard S. Iglewski as King Simonides of Pentapolis recalls Mike Douglas watching models on a runway while Kress, playing the princess Thaisa, patters into a hand-mike like Gloria Vanderbilt to describe their heraldic emblems: "A knight of Sparta, my renowned father;/ And the device he bears upon his shield/ Is a Black Ethiope reaching at the sun. . ."
Graced by such lively performances and crazy conceptions, the production flaunts manic fun, yet remains surprisingly faithful to the bard's picaresque intent. PERICLES -- The Acting Company, at the Terrace Theater through March 5.