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"Pericles" pleases at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival

R.B. Strauss of Press/Review

What a difference a play makes! One of The Bard's more obscure works, "Preicles, Price of Tyre" is in revival, courtesy of The Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival and the very savvy work of its Artistic Director, Carmen Khan.

Some revival it is, too, since local audiences have not seen it in over a century and a half! Running concurrently in repertory with a little something by the name of "Romeo and Julier," this offering is a sterling example of why Shakespeare continues to be relevant in our postmodern, harried world. Ms. Khan should be commended for both choosing this play and for staging such a wonderful production.

"Pericles," unlike "Romeo and Juliet," doesn't miss a step. The cast is very much up to elucidating the complex narrative inasmuch as they embody a plethora of emotional and intellectual choices via a wealth of sterling performances. Also, Ms. Khan's visual sense affords this all so satisfyingly over the top take verisimilitude due to her perfect pacing. In short, this complex play has more twists and turns than usual, even for The Bard, whose poetry simply sings, encompassing moods and tones at once tight and ebullient, tragic and exulting. Still, this is one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" regarding to its authorship. Many scholars believe that someone else either wrote the first two acts altogether or else in collaboration with Will. Beyond that is the hypothesis that the whole thing found Will as less of a sheer creative force but rather that he was an early example of a "script doctor," called in to tinker with and tighten its admitted sprawl.

From the first minutes I came to believe the work sprang fully from the pen of that man from Stratford on Avon. Why? I will leave the dense narrative to your eyes only, when you attend and instead concentrate on a couple points confluent with today, thus reflecting Shakespeare's always-prescient sensibility.

As one of the not appreciable liberties taken with the text, the narrator has been replaed with a grand chorus that introduces the initial impetus of the barrative: King Antiochus (Buck Schirner) has been making whoopee with his daughter, which then, as now, is a no-no. The king asks Pericles (Damon Bonetti) to answer a riddle whose answer reveals the incest. If Pericles guesses right, he wins the king's daughter/mistress. If he guesses wrong, his head will be removed from his body. Pericles gets it right but splits before he's slain, as either way is how Antiochus plays.

Returning to Tyre, Pericles correctly surmises that there is only one way by which Antiochus can keep his secret from his subjects and rally their support behind his sick self. War with Tyre. Zounds! Sound familiar? Indeed.

Later, much later, after much hugger-mugger and sublime romance, Marina (Melissa Dunphy), Pericles' teenage daughter (the play spans over a decade) finds herself kidnapped and sold into white slavery. One of the prospective johns just happens to sneak into the brothel anonymously. Why, pray tell? He is no less a person than "The Governor." (Yes, that's what he is referred to as in the play.) Oh, Elliot Spitzer, we hardly knew ye...

And in a brilliantly comic turn, only Shakespeare could make the incipient rape of a virgin into rollicking hijinks guaranteed to unleash laughter. It's genius, simply that.

And so the aforementioned was but a taste of what awaits. There are scenes of incredible heartbreak followed by theatrical tonic brimming with hilarity. As ever with Shakespeare, there is redemption and revelation. Oh, and there also action-packed sea voyages that will leave you jonesing for dramamine.

As for the performances, Damon Bonetti cuts an impressive figure as Pericles, heroic when need be, pitched into depths of despair when the text warrants it. He doesn't just act, richly enunciates a full personality. You wished he'd be onstage longer since Pericles does a vanishing act toward the end, only to return and ... Well, find out for yourself.

Buck Schirner assays three characters, and of course, being the pro that he is, offers up nifty shifts by turns. He is at his best, though, as the whorehouse heavy, offering up a comic masterpiece of a performance, all the more affective playing off Ms. Dunphy.

Now this young lady herself offers up a radiance that belies wisdom for one so young. This is yet more evidence of Shakespeare being the playwright inasmuch as the nuance of language adds volume of import to the nearly fey Marina, no matter the travails she has suffered during her all too young life. The repartee between Mr. Schirner and Ms. Dunphy in this scene by turns harrowing and hilarious is also a fine testimony to Ms. Khan's winning touch with actors.

There are many other fine thespian turns from this polished cast, all of whom avail themselves of the text with enthusiastic aplomb. Kudos is indeed in order.

"Pericles" is a thoroughly stupendous roller-coaster ride of a play. It is filled with everything anyone could ask for and more, from a story that bounces here and there without careening into incoherence to boundless flowing imagery that gets to the heart of why theater is the most moving and soul satisfying experience in which one can get lost. Hey, even minor Shakespeare affords a major experience.

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