‘Pericles” has everything you could ask for in a great Shakespearean play — that is, everything except an uncorrupt text and proof that Shakespeare wrote it. First produced in 1608, and currently staged by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at the Modern Theatre, it’s a kind of Mediterranean magical mystery tour, its protagonist hurtling from one coastal town to another, one shipwreck to the next, exhibiting virtue, valor, and the patience of Job as Pericles loses first his wife and then his daughter. Perhaps that’s Shakespeare’s way of saying that, in life, we’re all perpetually at sea. In the end, though, the sea gives up its dead: Both the wife, who’d been cast into the ocean, and the daughter, seized by pirates, are restored. “Pericles” is a ritual, a masque in which music (including the “music of the spheres”) and dance are as important as the action. Call it Shakespeare’s act of faith.
True, Ben Jonson called it “a mouldy tale,” but the play has always been popular with audiences, and by 1609 it was already in print — with Shakespeare’s name on the title page. It did not make the First Folio, however, and the halting, pedestrian first two acts break sharply with the soaring last three. Moreover, the 1609 Quarto edition, the only surviving text, is a maelstrom of mistakes and omissions. The likeliest explanation of the play’s authorship is that the Bard collaborated in some way with the relatively undistinguished George Wilkins. What is certain is that in February 1608, Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna delivered a granddaughter, a bright moment in the playwright’s life. “Pericles” revolves around fathers and daughters.
Dahlia Al-Habieli’s set for the thrust stage at the Modern is simple and satisfying: a mottled, shadowed floor, a single sea chest, assorted casks and hawsers, canvas sails, what looks like the prow of a ship set on end. But Molly Trainer’s costume concept places the play in Colonial America: The gentlemen wear breeches and in some cases tricornered hats, and Pericles’ future bride, Thaisa, looks like a Puritan in her white cap. The songs are contemporary: Stan Rogers’s “Northwest Passage,” Cyril Tawney’s “The Grey Funnel Line,” Jonatha Brooke’s “In the Gloaming,” plus some jigs and reels.
As Gower, the story’s narrator, Paula Plum does what she can to unify this odd assortment; if she overacts, at least she does so with conviction. But most of the acting in this production is not convincing. Pretty much everyone shouts — which is unpleasant in a theater as intimate as the Modern. Jesse Hinson is a smirky, callow Pericles, no wiser at the end of the play than he is at the beginning, and with a voice that just keeps getting higher and thinner. Pericles’ daughter, Marina, is supposed to be a paragon of sweetness and accomplishment; Elizabeth Rimar sulks, scowls, scolds, and lectures. Kathryn Lynch, as Thaisa, seems more like Priscilla Mullins in “The Courtship of Miles Standish” than a king’s daughter. Michael Forden Walker and Gabriel Kuttner, both so excellent in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s previous production, Will Eno’s “Middletown,” are utterly lost here.
Perhaps that’s because director Allyn Burrows posits “Pericles” as parody rather than parable. I didn’t at all mind his substituting a carnival contest for the jousting in the scene where the knights vie for Thaisa’s hand. Or his having Bobbie Steinbach, as the brothel owner, look invitingly at a female audience member as she goes in search of “fresh” working girls for her establishment. But line after line is milked for laughs. Even the climax, one of the most moving scenes in all of Shakespeare, where Pericles and Marina rediscover each other, where Pericles utters the immortal line “Thou that beget’st him that did thee beget” — even this elicits a snigger. Awe is what “Pericles” calls for.