At the Folger: The magical mystery tour of ‘Pericles’

In Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of one of the bard’s least-performed plays, director Joseph Haj and cast create something special for the holidays.

Pericles (Wayne T. Carr) adrift on a hostile sea. (Photo credit: Jenny Graham/OSF)

WASHINGTON, Nov. 22, 2015 – Imported from the Ashland-based Oregon Shakespeare Festival and now being performed at the Folger Theatre through Dec. 20, the Bard’s infrequently-performed fantasy-drama, “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” is an absolute delight for the ear and eye. It’s also an inspired choice for a light holiday entertainment for theatergoers looking for something a bit off the beaten path as 2015 nears its final days.

Title page of "Pericles" from 1609 Folio. (Via Wikipedia)
Title page of “Pericles” from 1609 Folio (Via Wikipedia)

Controversy over “Pericles”

Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” very popular in its day and again during the Restoration, gradually fell into oblivion for any number of reasons, one of them being increasing uncertainty that the Bard had actually written it. Some otherwise devoted Shakespeare fans don’t even know it exists.

As with much of Shakespeare scholarship, there’s not an easy answer to the question raised by this unusual play. Yet as our current century began to unfold, most Shakespeare scholars seem to have reached a consensus that “Pericles” is, in fact, a collaboration between Shakespeare and (perhaps) a jack-of-all-trades hack named George Wilkins.

Historical analysis and detailed studies of literary styles strongly indicate that “Pericles” was roughly a 50-50 effort, with the first half of the play likely written in the hand of Wilkins, while the concluding half of the play, more or less, was supplied by the Bard. My ear would tend to agree with that point of view.

While “Pericles,” as re-imagined by the Oregon crew, is as charming as it is unpredictable, its language and poetry did seem to take on a brighter, more refined aura during this production’s second half. If you buy into the prevailing, Oxford-centric scholarly view, this is surely due to Shakespeare’s more accomplished hand. On the other hand, this sensation, based on researching the scholarly consensus, could also have been something like the placebo effect in medicine.

Rather than get too deeply involved in matters perhaps best left to quarrelling Oxford and Cambridge scholars, however, it’s probably a wiser course to take a look at what is actually unfolding on the Folger stage as we approach Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday season.

Although I’ve long been familiar with most of Shakespeare’s works and many of the more famous plays of his Elizabethan and Jacobean rivals, I must admit to having little familiarity with “Pericles.” As is true of the Bible’s controversial apocryphal books, certain “Shakespeare” plays like this one and “Titus Andronicus” have not always been considered part of the Bard’s official canon. And so, like many, I’ve never given this play much thought.

Approaching “Pericles” with fresh eyes, however, one immediately senses an affinity with the sense and sensibility of “The Tempest,” a similar but more elegant late fantasy drama dating from roughly the same time period, circa 1608-1610. The plays possess similar elements, including storm-tossed seas, bad characters masquerading as good ones, long-lost family members, exotic realms and, of course, magic when it’s urgently required.

The wanderings of Pericles are also strongly reminiscent of the endless voyage of wily Ulysses as he tries to find his way home after the Trojan War, providing this Jacobean voyage of discovery with an episodic rather than purely linear narrative. “Pericles” works like a quest fantasy and a morality play all mixed into one.

Pericles and Thaisa find themselves in a family way. (All photo credits: Jenny Graham/OSF)
Pericles (Wayne T. Carr) and Thaisa (Brooke Parks) find themselves in a family way. (This and all photo credits below: Jenny Graham/OSF)

The plot of “Pericles”

We first encounter Pericles (Wayne T. Carr), the play’s eponymous prince (and later king) of Tyre, as he bids for the hand of King Antiochus’ (Scott Ripley’s) daughter (Jennie Greenberry), later thinking better of it when he learns through a lethal riddle posed by the king that this daughter is also the king’s paramour.

Escaping that death-trap with the help of Cleon, governor of Tarsus (Barzin Akhavan) and his wife Dionyza (Brooke Parks)—whom he rewards with a much-needed gift of grain from his own ships—he next winds up on the shores of Pentapolis. There, in a tournament, he wins the hand in marriage of Thaisa (Brooke Parks), the daughter of King Simonedes (Scott Ripley).

Unfortunately, back on the high seas once again, his pregnant bride dies in childbirth and is reluctantly dropped overboard in her coffin with the bereaved Pericles giving his tiny daughter, Marina, to Cleon and Dionyza to raise as he continues with a heavy heart on his journeys to distant lands and seas.

In the play’s second half, we fast forward in time, altering our focus to the now-grown Marina (Jennie Greenberry), with the final fate of Pericles and his tragically divided family receding for a time into the distance. Suffice it to say there’s actually a happy ending in store once Pericles has endured torments requiring the patience of Job. But let’s stop at this point rather than issuing a typical spoiler alert.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of “Pericles”

Director Joseph Haj had updated Shakespeare’s sometimes unwieldy play in a number of ways, focusing on its astrological and fantasy elements while bringing into play the moral ideals of faithfulness, constancy and honor that constantly underpin the action on stage.

Three scurvy fishermen (L-R: U. Jonathan Toppo, Michael J. Hume and Cedric Lamar) singing an old sea song prior to encountering Pericles.
Three scurvy fishermen (L-R: U. Jonathan Toppo, Michael J. Hume and Cedric Lamar) singing an old sea song prior to encountering Pericles.

The Oregon production envisions the ever-changing scenarios of “Pericles” as existing within the ever-changing whims of nature and the gods themselves. “Pericles,” in fact, takes to heart the medieval metaphor that conceives of earthly life as part of an eternal journey, a pilgrimage whose goal is to unite with God in heaven. The journey in this play, however, is not only undertaken by Pericles, who serves as Shakespeare’s Everyman. It’s also a cosmic journey undertaken by his wife, Thaisa, and their extraordinary daughter, Marina, as well.

Although all three spend much of their time cruelly separated from one another, all resist temptation and remain faithful and true to one another. Marina, in particular, resists succumbing to the baser side of humanity. Her noble behavior is rewarded three-fold with the rediscovery of her missing family and a new fiancé as well, who, having come to violate her virtue, is instead humbled and overcome by it.

Pericles (Wayne T. Carr) invokes the goddess Diana (Emily Serdahl).
Pericles (Wayne T. Carr) invokes the goddess Diana (Emily Serdahl).

But happily, the moral content of “Pericles” is leavened by its lightness of being, a key element that director Haj cleverly manages to extract. As a means to this end, Haj chose to deploy a substantial amount of music in this production, which is further elevated by the presence of several fine musicians who perform on the edge of the action while occasionally joining the actors to portray the many peripheral yet important characters in this drama.

Original music and lyrics in this production are expertly supplied by Jack Herrick, who occasionally makes lyrical use of lines from the play, while at other times interpolating music and lyrics entirely his own. Normally, we prefer not to encounter externally provided material in an authentic Shakespeare production. But in this case, Herrick works with the inner spirit of this drama, enlivening it while adding greater dramatic heft with an original score that enhances and delights.

Vaguely period costuming, clever lighting, and simple but remarkably evocative stage trimmings perfectly complement the mythic settings in this production. But the icing on the cake, as it were, is the tasteful, heartfelt, perfectly underplayed effort of this cast, all of whom, according to advance material, are veterans of the original Oregon production.

“Pericles”: The cast and performance

The heart and soul of this production are its three primary characters, Pericles, Thaisa and Marina.

As the play’s central character, Wayne T. Carr embodies the love, the courage, the fear and the sense of wonder that possess the character of Pericles as he bravely persists in his unasked-for quest.

As the loving and ever-faithful Thaisa, Brooke Parks is the quietly moving soul of the drama, remaining faithful and constant even in the face of impossible odds.

Pericles’ daughter Marina (Jennie Greenberry) in a private moment, as the evil Leonine (Cedric Lamar) moves to seize her.
Pericles’ daughter Marina (Jennie Greenberry) in a private moment, as the evil Leonine (Cedric Lamar) moves to seize her.

And as Marina, the strikingly poised and elegant Jennie Greenberry somehow manages to embody and transcend the character of both parents as she grows into adulthood without knowing either one—a touching tribute to the uniqueness of the family bond.

In an interesting bit of casting, Haj manages to double the parts of his female leads to portray their main characters’ polar opposites. Brooke Parks also plays the wicked Dionyza of Tarsus who jealously attempts to send Marina to her doom, while Jennie Greenberry briefly appears as the spooky, abused yet complicit daughter of the depraved Antiochus.

Turnabout is fair play among the lesser characters as well, as Antiochus and his polar opposite, Simonides—father of Thaisa—are both portrayed by Scott Ripley; the servant Lychorida and the goddess Diana are played by Emily Serdahl; while Cleon (Barzin Akhavan) morphs for a time into one of the bawdy, funny, yet depraved pirates who make off with Marina in the second act.

But before we conclude, we should also note one final key role. “Pericles” is a play that’s laid out for us by the rather clumsy device of a storytelling narrator-chorus in the person of a “poet” named Gower. The use of Gower is, perhaps, an efficient way to glide through the substantial space and time continuum that “Pericles” inhabits. But such a character is often employed more as a crutch meant to navigate through the holes of an imperfectly structured narrative.

Armando Durán as Gower.
Armando Durán as Gower.

That said, Armando Durán’s warm and unobtrusive portrayal of Gower—including his occasional but integral vocals—makes his somewhat extraneous character a natural in this production. Durán’s Gower is a fatherly storyteller and master-of-ceremonies wrapped up into one, our genial guide through this play’s bewildering thicket of prodigies and circumstances.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to see a production of “Pericles” before, this production is an absolute must-see. It’s a model for how clarity of directorial vision, when united with a fine veteran cast, an evocative, magical setting and a contemporary but strangely period-authentic musical score can transform a occasionally unwieldy and confusing play like this one into a marvelous evening of theater that is indeed worthy of inclusion in the Shakespearean canon—whatever misgivings some Shakespeare scholars may have.

A trailer for this production appears below:

Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)

Hosted by the Folger Theatre, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Pericles” continues through Dec. 20, 2015, staged in the Folger’s theater at 201 East Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC 20003. This version of the play runs an economical 2 hours and 20 minutes including a single intermission.

Tickets and information: Tickets prices currently range from $35-75. For tickets and information, visit or call the Box Office at 202-544-7077.

“Pericles” extras announced by the Folger: In the exhibit center adjacent to the theater, be sure to check out the library’s current “Age of Lawyers” exhibit before the show or during intermission. For those further interested, the Folger’s Heather Wolfe will discuss this exhibition during the library’s Curator Talk on Dec. 1 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets: $20.

A pre-performance seminar with Folger director Michael Witmore explores the play from a scholarly perspective on Dec. 2 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $20, with light fare included, according to a Folger release.

The theater’s Brews & Banter Pre-Show Talk takes place on Dec. 3 at 6:30 p.m. The group discussion will be led by actors Cedric Lamar and U. Jonathan Toppo. Price: $15. Beer and light fare are included.

A free post-show discussion with cast members of “Pericles” will be offered to ticket holders remaining in the house after the play’s performance on Dec. 10. The discussion will be led by Folger’s resident dramaturg Michele Osherow.

An open-captioned performance of “Pericles” is scheduled for Dec. 13 at 2 p.m.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17