It bounces around from place to place with lots of action at sea, so sets may be complicated. It is derivative of many other—and stronger—works, from Oedipus Rex to Shakespeare’s own Comedy of Errors, among others. It tends not to make much sense when it is broken down into a linear story. Most college English departments don’t even teach it in Shakespeare classes. And it is over 2 and ½ hours long (not counting intermission). So why would anyone want to produce it at all? More important, who would go see it?
The answer to the first question is St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre, and to the second is anyone who appreciates good theatre. This is a grand show (though even with some cutting, still overlong). Andrea Frye has directed this production with an artist’s mind and a master’s hand. And as far as the problems enumerated above are concerned, she waves them away by indicating that we are not to take the actions in the play literally because it is a fairy tale, and thinking of it as fantasy makes it much more palatable. The dreary character of Gower, the narrator, becomes the “trickster” of African lore. He is playful and amusing in Robert A. Mitchell’s sure hands. He enters in an outrageous costume that defies description really (but look at that giant bunch of feathers on his head) and begins to entertain us as he introduces the tale. His comments lead us through the intricacies of the story.
Frye has elected to set the piece in various locations important to the African-American experience, beginning in Tyre (Ashanti, in this version) and Antioch (here probably Mali), and passing through Cuba, Haiti, Gullah Islands, and New Orleans. Chris Anthony, a director herself, acted as dramaturg, and in their rendition, Pericles, King of Tyre, travels through space and time in what becomes a charming picaresque. Frye tells us in her program note that his journeys represent the African-American Diaspora by changing the settings to key places where Africans landed and/or settled.
When we meet Pericles (Ka’ramuu Kush), Prince of Tyre/Ashanti he has gone to Antioch (Mali) to woo the daughter of King Antiochus (Rich Piesarkiewicz). A secret is involved and Pericles is horrified when he figures it out and makes to escape. He lands in Haiti first to bring supplies to aid that country’s starving people and he meets the grateful King Cleon (Mitchell) and his imperious wife, Queen Dionyza (Susie Wall) then he moves on. He is wrecked at sea, however, and winds up in Cuba where he wins the hand of King Simonides’ (Piesarkiewicz) daughter through his considerable charm. She is the beautiful Thaisa (Patrese McClain), with whom he is quickly wed and they set off for the long, hazardous trip to his home back in Africa.
Another storm comes up, and this one has devastating effects for Pericles. If he ever got a fortune cookie that said “Avoid long sea voyages,” he ignored it. Thaisa is lost giving birth to their daughter, Marina (Sharisa Whatley). Pericles finds that the ship is near Haiti, so he pulls up when the seas have calmed and hands the infant over to Cleon and the scheming Dionyza who promises to treat the child as her own. Both Mitchell and Wall are excellent in these roles. It isn’t often that we get to see Susie Wall play a real bitch, and she’s good at it!
Time passes, plots are hatched and foiled, and since this is a romance, “all’s well that”. . . well, you know. There are pirates and whores, royals and commoners, healers and servants, and a whole world of people who interact with each other in many different ways. Most of the cast plays more than one part, and all of them are effective as each character. There is a very odd mélange of dialects employed, especially in Cuba where Joe Hanrahan as a fisherman has a weird accent, presumably Spanish, Simonides has a slight Cuban lilt, and others don’t bother to speak any differently at all. Some consistency would be nice. I don’t mean to single out Hanrahan’s performance as a weakness; on the contrary, he plays three named characters and even more as part of the ensemble, and he is a strong member of the company overall.
The set employs a screen that stretches the length of the rear wall on which flash various pictures. Sometimes it’s just the pattern of a piece of cloth. Or it might be a storm at sea or other event. It is helpful and effective in both orienting the audience and setting mood. Long, sheer draperies can represent ocean waves washing a man ashore or sails billowing in a storm. This is an absolutely beautifully choreographed show. There are snippets of various dances, both African and Latin, performed by the graceful cast members. All their movements are organic and perfectly times. The costumes are varied and fascinating. Credit goes to Heather Beal (choreography), Dunsi Dai (set), Robin Weatherall (sound), Sarita Fellows (costumes) and Mark Varns (lights). If no one said a word, Pericles would still be worth the price of admission.
But many words are said, and as always, some are better at saying them than others. I found Kush to be rather stiff. He got better as he got further in, but I heard people say they found him hard to understand at times, which, with Shakespeare or whoever else is writing in this style, is a major problem. But he “acts” so beautifully with his eloquent body language. And he has some of the best support St. Louis has to offer. Linda Kennedy is fascinating, as always, in her multiple roles as a baby nurse, a healer, and members of the ensemble. McClain has a more subtle role than in the last couple of shows I’ve seen her do, and I thought she was fine throughout. Whatley delivers on the promise she made us with her Juliet. And Mitchell, as he so often does, anchors them all.
Pericles runs at The Black Rep through Jan. 30. You may call 314-534-3807 or visit www.theblackrep.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT