CEDAR CITY — In Pericles, Prince of Tyre, the title character embarks on a journey that takes him around the eastern Mediterranean. Along the way, he experiences mortal danger, love, loss, mourning, and exquisite joy (in roughly that order). The Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of Pericles puts the audience through a similar cycle of ups and downs, showcasing a mix of artistic excellence and misfires that sums up to an experience that is as uneven as Pericles’s journey, but which ends on an optimistic note.
Pericles opens with the title character in Antioch trying to win the hand of the city’s princess in marriage by answering a riddle posed by the king, Antiochus. Pericles realizes that the answer to the riddle is that the king and his daughter are in an incestuous relationship, which endangers his life: revealing the answer would anger the king and make Pericles a target for his wrath, but not revealing the answer would require him to submit to a death sentence. Pericles keeps the answer to himself and flees briefly to Tyre to leave his kingdom in the hands of a regent, Helicanus. The next stop is Pentapolis, where Pericles wins the love of the princess Thaisa and the approval of her father, Simonides. Soon after marrying, the happy couple is caught in a storm at sea, where Thaisa gives birth but dies soon after. Her body is released in a sealed wooden coffin, and Pericles takes his newborn daughter, named Marina, to Tarsus to be raised. Meanwhile, Thaisa’s coffin washes ashore in Ephesus, where she is revived through the skill of a local physician, Cerimon. Fourteen years later, Creon’s wife, Dionysa becomes jealous of Marina and orders her to be killed. Before that can happen, Marina is kidnapped by pirates and sold into a brothel in Mytilene. Her piety is a major turnoff for the customers, and she preserves her virginity by preaching and invoking the gods. When Pericles visits Mytilene, the two are reunited by happenstance. The goddess Diana then visits Pericles in a dream to tell him to go to Ephesus and to be reunited with Thaisa. Presumably, the family lives happily ever after, though Shakespeare does not state this.
A convoluted plot that requires a lengthy synopsis is one of the many weaknesses of the script. The action of the first two acts is rushed, and Shakespeare‘s deep characterizations are mostly missing from the play. Because the writing seems to get better as the play progresses, many scholars have suggested that the play is a collaboration with an unknown playwright who wrote the first two acts or so. Whether the play is wholly Shakespeare or not, it is difficult to get emotionally attached to shallow characters who almost all appear in a scene or two and then are never heard from again.
Only Pericles and Thaisa get scenes where the characters are driven by real emotions. The actors playing these roles, Danforth Comins and Desirée Mee Jung, respectively, take full advantage of these moments. Comins makes Pericles a loving husband and doting father. The tender lullaby he sings the newborn Marina humanizes Pericles and creates an emotional highlight of the evening. Comins effectively ramps up the pathos in the second half of the play, portraying Pericles as a broken man for years after losing his wife and daughter. When that sorrow turned to joy in the final two scenes when the family is reunited, the contrast was cathartic, and it was rewarding to watch the character receive a payoff for his suffering.
Jung is sadly underutilized in this play, but her charisma and charm make her a pleasure to watch in her scenes. The cute attraction that Thaisa showed towards Pericles during the tournament and her bashful premarital interactions were endearing. Jung changed her portrayal in the play’s final scene, and Thaisa was firmer in her steps and more forthright in her words. As a result, Thaisa seemed to have matured, and grown almost as much as Pericles had.
As John Gower (a real fourteenth century poet who serves in this play as a chorus), René Thornton Jr. has a commanding voice and a dignity that rivals that of any Shakespearean king. Thornton’s command of the language is impressive, and even though all of his lines are exposition, I hung on his every word. In the role of Simonides, Chris Mixon is a comforting paternal figure; his affection towards Thaisa and joviality made his performance added to the pleasure of watching Thaisa and Pericles grow closer together.
But there were some misfires in the cast, too. In the role of Dionysa, Kristina C. Harding was wooden and disengaged. Whether the character was expressing relief for receiving relief from the famine or ordering Marina’s death, her line deliver varied little. Sarah Shippobotham played Bawd (the female proprietor of the brothel in Mytilene) as a comic character, which robbed the brothel scenes of any sense of peril for Marina.
I blame this latter misstep on director Kent Thompson, who tried to introduce comic relief in the brothel scenes. Not only is such a choice unsupported by the text, but almost all of the humor failed to get a laugh from the audience. In 21st century terms, these scenes portray a woman who is the victim of human trafficking. To make light of Marina’s situation is tone deaf and ignores the dynamics of an older woman (Bawd) pressuring another (Marina) into a life of sexual exploitation at the hands of men.
Yet, Thompson’s direction had more strengths than weaknesses. Thompson has an intuitive understanding of pacing, and I appreciated how Thompson wisely allowed Thaisa’s revival scene to play out gradually; the hushed pause when the onlookers saw Thaisa sit up in her coffin was a memorable moment of awe. He also managed the Act V reunion scene between Marina and Pericles so that it had a lovely buildup that ended in a crescendo joy for both characters.
One of the assets of this production is Kärin Simonson Kopischke’s costumes. Kopischke helpfully color-coded the costumes for each city: green for Antioch, blue for Tyre, yellow for Tarsus, white for Pentapolis, brown for Ephesus, and red for Mytilene. I have seen this strategy before, and it is a helpful technique to guide the audience through the play’s many locations. Kopischke’s costumes also had clear Greek and Middle Eastern influences that served as silent reminders of the play’s settings.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre has never been counted among Shakespeare’s masterpieces — and never will be. But it is the right play for the COVID-19 era. From city to city, Pericles is the victim of trying circumstances, “And yet he rides it out,” says Gower. In the end, Pericles is “crowned with joy at last” (again, in Gower’s words). The message of Pericles is simple: hang in there. Watching Pericles endure his tribulations and be rewarded instills hope and encourages its audience to endure their own difficulties.