Though Shakespeare's "Pericles" hinges on a series of improbable events -- a long-lost daughter found, a wife risen from the dead, a royal family reunited -- one never imagines the marvelous feats extending to a wholly satisfying version of this difficult play. But director Mary Zimmerman clearly consults her own book of spells. She does achieve something miraculous with her deeply moving production of this rarely performed work: an evening of bewitching ingenuity and bountiful surprise.
The surprises, in fact, come in all sorts of packaging in Zimmerman's lively, funny staging for the Shakespeare Theatre, from the visual wit of the color-coded kingdoms conjured by the set designer Daniel Ostling and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, to the pitch-perfect performances of Ryan Artzberger and Marguerite Stimpson, Colleen Delany and Richard Pelzman. It's hard to recall a recent night of Shakespeare, anywhere, offering such across-the-board enchantment.
Zimmerman, a Chicago-based director who won a Tony for her shimmering adaptation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," has talked of being drawn to the works of Shakespeare and others that are considered lesser achievements. Like some sort of faith healer, she is liberated, it appears, by the challenge of making the theatrically lame walk again. Her imaginative fingerprints are all over this staging, and not in the smudgy way that some directors like to add gratuitous sight gags and self-conscious pop-cultural references.
No, what Zimmerman discovers is a real beating heart for "Pericles," and a smart and fluid new way to tell a bumpy story.
"Pericles" is among the later plays of Shakespeare, and it is of dubious heritage; scholars chew over how much of it is his and who might have written it with him. It is often lumped with the romances -- as in "The Winter's Tale," the play skips over a chasm of 16 years and involves a wife surreally restored to life. The writing of some of the early scenes is widely judged to be inferior, and the narrative, which follows the trials of the seafaring King Pericles (Artzberger) and the daughter lost to him, Marina (Stimpson), can seem plodding and disjointed. Still, the play possesses an eternally socko ending, an achingly lovely recognition scene, in which Pericles and Marina find their way back to each other's arms.
The director, making her Shakespeare Theatre debut, builds up to the beauty of this storybook ending with a child's plaything of a "Pericles," coated from start to finish in warm colors and beguiling images. Ostling's superb set puts "Pericles" in a towering room with a massive vertical window; all during the play, faces and model ships and goddesses peer in and sail by and fly through the window. Adding to the sense of a magical playroom is a wall of drawers and cabinets, out of which cast members pull props and bits of scenery, such as the fabrics used to suggest stormy ocean swells and virginal bridal beds.
Like the Greek story of Jason and the Argonauts, "Pericles" is both a yarn and a travelogue, and the array of exotic-sounding ports in which the hero drops anchor -- locales such as Antioch and Ephesus and Mytilene -- allows Zimmerman and the first-rate Blumenfeld to imagine each as a distinct fairy-tale destination. Tarsus and its rulers (Joseph Costa and Michelle Shupe), devastated by famine, are swathed in sun-burnt linens and raiment of gold; Mytilene, where Marina is sold to the owners of a brothel, is a commonwealth adorned in decadent purples; and Pentapolis, the happy, well-fed land that is home to King Simonides (Pelzman) and his daughter, Thaisa (Delany), who marries Pericles, is conceived as a sort of plush Ritz-Carlton of a city, complete with bellmen.
What distinguishes these flourishes from those used in other productions of Shakespeare is how textually apt they often are. Early on, for instance, when Pericles saves Tarsus from starvation, he tells the king and queen that he has come with ships bearing a cargo of wheat. No reference is made to this again until a scene late in the play, when a killer-for-hire on Tarsus chases Marina -- through a field rich in stalks of wheat.
Zimmerman's coups here are not merely cosmetic. She makes a drastic but highly effective change in the script, altogether eliminating a central character in the play -- Gower, the hard-bitten narrator -- and apportioning his lines to the rest of the cast.
This technique has been used before, most memorably in the Royal Shakespeare Company's seminal staging of Dickens's "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby." It's applied at the Shakespeare with warmth and cleverness. The narrator at any moment is the actor holding a book, which is passed among the performers continually. Sometimes they read Gower's monologues, sometimes a bit of stage direction. There is one priceless instance of stage instruction read aloud -- it won't be divulged here -- that lets us know that this director understands fully the ludicrous leaps the story asks an audience to make.
The tale floats merrily from kingdom to kingdom; the question of belonging somewhere, so pivotal to the plot, is reflected in the specific cultural identity of each of the lands. This notion is reinforced not only in Andre Pluess's melodic scoring but also in Daniel Pelzig's choreography. (Case in point: the quirky dance of the knights in the banquet scene in Pentapolis, where each knight makes a hilariously idiosyncratic salute.) The occasional lapsing into precious clowning or superfluous slapstick is perhaps inevitable but entirely forgivable.
The more important overlay here is the cast's wonderful esprit; it's a pleasure seeing Glenn Fleshler playing the evil, incestuous Antiochus and having such a good time doing it, and Pelzman evincing such playful glee as a matchmaking monarch. Some other actors with longstanding local franchises, such as Sarah Marshall, seem wholly in their element as well. Marshall portrays the mystic Cerimon (a sorcerer turned sorceress for this production), who resuscitates Thaisa, who's died in childbirth. Rarely is Marshall marshaled so effectively; she's a touching presence, coaxing a soul back into the daylight. Shupe's Dionyza, Bernard Burak Sheredy's Helicanus and Evan Zes's Leonine all make distinctive marks, too.
Three performances, however, establish a trio of younger actors as bulwarks for the future. All speak Shakespeare beautifully and naturally. Delany brings a graceful mournfulness -- and a soupcon of sexual appetite -- to Thaisa; she's terrific in the banquet scene, offering carnal wishes in stage whispers. Stimpson's Marina is all innocent self-possession without the saccharine aftertaste, and her ability to convulse the brothel and its proprietors (Floyd King, Naomi Jacobson, Jesse J. Perez) with her chastity gives the play its comic capstone.
Stimpson is even better in that blubbery reunion scene, one in which Artzberger, too, rises grandly to the occasion. His Pericles is fresh and vital and full of emotion, not the noble, Joblike stick of other, less successful incarnations of the play. When at last he enfolds Marina in his arms, the journey of "Pericles" feels like something substantial, a true voyage.
Zimmerman's accomplishment is to make the itinerary worthwhile, in all its particulars. Her production is the sort that takes the full measure of a mature classical company. A fine "Henry V"? That's nice. A rewarding "As You Like It"? Always welcome. But a great "Pericles"? Wow. Now that's really something.
Pericles, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Mary Zimmerman. Lighting, T.J. Gerckens. With David B. Heuvelman, Emery Battis, Erik Steele, Nathan Blew, John Livingstone Rolle, Teresa Lim. Approximately 2 hours 35 minutes. Through Jan. 2 at the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.