Pericles: Born In A Tempest, produced by Hunger & Thirst Theatre with The Guerilla Shakespeare Project at the West End Theater on the Upper West Side, is an approachable and fast-paced re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Pericles, now playing until November 18th.
Relying on a tight ensemble of storytellers, and a keen eye in adaptation by director Jordan Reeves, this production breathes life into one of the Bard’s lesser-known works, reinventing its historically clunky frame into a touching meta-narrative.
Pericles: Born In a Tempest
Saturday, Nov 11 @ 8 PM
Sunday, Nov 12 @ 2 PM
Wednesday, Nov 15 @ 7 PM
Thursday, Nov 16 @ 7 PM
Friday, Nov 17 @ 8 PM
Saturday, Nov 18 @ 2 PM
Saturday, Nov 18 @ 8 PM
Why It’s Good:
Just about every theater company has a mission. Whether it’s then able to stay within that scope, or live up to the lofty goals, depends on the focus and resolve of the artistic staff. Some groups will set vague missions to leave room to do whatever they want. Others, like Hunger & Thirst Theater and the Guerilla Shakespeare Project, set themselves specific, ambitious goals, and watching them create and succeed within those missions is itself worthwhile theater. The combination here, bringing GSP’s commitment to “think of every Shakespeare play as a new play,” and H&T’s pursuit of classic stories with timeless themes, results in a deeply layered take on Pericles.
On the surface, Shakespeare’s “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” is a series of adventures of the noble, tragic Pericles as told by the Middle English poet John Gower, as Chorus. The act-by-act introductions of each episode are an anomaly in Shakespeare’s canon, and represent perennial challenges (or opportunities) for directors. In Pericles: Born In a Tempest, conceived and directed by Jordan Reeves, the context is ripped from the England of Chaucer and John Gower, and set instead in the present day. And rather than John Gower serving as Chorus, it’s his funeral attendants, in their attempts to cheer Gower’s daughter (Patricia Lynn), who inspire the recounting of her father’s great epic, using elegantly re-purposed text from the original. The chorus morphs between the characters of Pericles, as echoes between this daughter of John Gower and Marina, daughter of Pericles, serve as salve to her real-world grief.
As a frame, the story of John Gower’s phantom daughter adds an engaging new layer to the classic. Indeed, within the disputed authorship of the play, Shakespeare is only given full credit for the latter half, which includes the story of Pericles’ daughter Marina, born in the tempest. Pulling this adaptation further toward the dramatic relationships Shakespeare himself crafted is a strong choice, and allows the more contemporary themes to resonate even better than the original. And rather than relegating the framing device to act breaks, the airtight cast flows between the layers of narrative like the tides that carried fated Pericles and Marina to and fro.
The set filling the West End Theater is made up of the cluttered, half-boxed memories of the departed. Both the overall scenic design (Lynne Porter) and costumes (Lea Reeves) are functionally minimal to serve the lo-fi storytelling the ensemble conjures, but both also have some delightful surprises in store once the story takes off. The lights (Melissa Mizell) and projections (Matt Reeves) are both used effectively to guide the currents of the story once it hits literal and figurative rapids.
The swirling ensemble itself is polished and works together in mesmerizing harmony. Lynn, who spends the majority of the time onstage as either Marina or Gower’s daughter, is the moving eye of (and on) the storm, with Jordan Kaplan serving as her endlessly affable companions; Jacques Roy is a virtuoso Pericles, bounding roguishly between drama and adventure; while Kathryn Metzger and Tom Schwans tirelessly delight with a series of memorable supporting characters.
As a retelling of Pericles, it refreshingly decenters the narrative, and focuses ostensibly on the discarded and abducted Marina, and the possibility of her reconciliation with her father’s memory — or if nothing else, sharing with us why she might not be able to forgive him his absence. The play susses out interesting, modern questions about relationships that aren’t immediately apparent in this odd duck of Shakespeare’s, which is always a good thing.
There’s a standard set of questions when examining a mash up of the Bard. Do the performers rise to the text? Does it earn the transposition of setting? Does it reconjure relevance? Thankfully, the ensemble and concept of Pericles: Born in a Tempest are certainly strong enough to warrant this production, but even so there are opportunities to clarify and deepen the connections being made; the interoperating layers that bring so much depth to the framing can also leave the audience feeling a bit adrift in the maelstrom. The ideas and narratives at work aren’t always as clear as the movement and speech of the ensemble.
And given that Pericles is a perennial target for smash-and-grab style adaptations, and so much is often left to the wayside, every adaptation is even more responsible for what it decides to keep and how it’s used. For example, the addition of the contemporary layer further problematizes the infamously bawdy brothel scenes, and the irreverent stylistic treatment only deepens the awkwardness, playing queerness for laughs. The whole sequence left me wondering how Gower’s daughter comically reenacting Marina’s abandonment and escape from forced sex work furthered the emotional meta-arc the adaptation had already established.
All That Said: It’s a compelling and curious reworking of a Shakespeare you’ve probably never seen before. If you’re looking to catch a Pericles, this is a solid choice to take it in without wading through the staid formalities that can come with the Bard.