Pericles, Prince of Tyre… at California Lutheran University

it’s great… I was able to catch two Shakespeare plays within a week of one another… that hasn’t happened since our pre-Kyle days up in Ashland… but it will happen again next summer when we–as a family–head up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for a mini-week play-going vacation

OK, a couple of days back, I caught a local college’s production of Pericles.

Now, like Love’s Labor’s Lost nearly a week earlier, Pericles is a play I’ve never seen on stage (that’s the reason why I chose to go, mid-week, on a school night, no less).  It is a play I’ve read (and taught back in my high school days… though that year is now nearly two decades past, and, well, until I read the synopsis in the program I was a little unclear on the plot [I remembered the gap in time and the lost daughter… but hell, with the tragicomedies/romances, that was a pretty safe bet]).  So off we went (yeah, I dragged Lisa along with me) to California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks… about 20 miles or so from my neck of the woods.  Cal-Lu is also the home of the Kinsgmen Shakespeare Company (which presented the Macbeth which was the subject of our second-ever podcast back in July).

Now, this is a university theater arts department production… which always brings a little shiver to my heart.  This can be a recipe for disaster… so many things can go wrong, so much can be sub-par in execution (from acting, to staging, to even the acting space).  The acting can be a train-wreck (after all, delivery of Shakespeare can be, uh, difficult), but if all the stagecraft works, then we can forgive all sorts of performance issues.

the converse, of course, is NOT the case:  even Olivier and DeNiro on a stage wearing smocks, with bad lighting, and holding a wooden sword, would be ridiculous

Happy to say… the stagecraft is simply magnificent here.  Director (CLU Professor of Theater Arts and director of the aforementioned “Scottish Play”) Michael J. Arndt does a masterful job of getting the non-acting elements just right.  He picks the right venue: a black box theater, in which he constructs a thrust stage on steroids.  The audience is broken up into five sections, one front and center, and two more on either side of the stage (those pairs separated by gaps in which are placed curtains through which actors can make entrances and exits… two more such portals appear between the front section of seats and the first two side sections).

The floor of the stage is in sections of wood (worn and aged), with short pillars (some so short as to be stumps), and a raised shallow platform at the back of the stage.  Both the pillars and the back of the stage act as part of the lighting design as well: the pillars are lit from within, in different colors to reflect the setting and mood of any particular scene; the back wall, above the raised platform, is lit via rear projection with images that supplement the action of the scene (piked heads for the Antioch sequence, a withered tree for the Tarsus area, silhouettes of shapely women for the bawd-house)… and to the sides of this mini-slide-show are two more portals, screens with slits for passage, screens with prints of huge waves (like the classic Japanese woodprint)… waves that bring you into the shipwrecked-packed narrative.

So the set and lighting design (by Nate Sinnott) are excellent.  So, too, is the original music by Chris Hoag.  And if you’re going to have music, you might have well have dance; and the choreography by Barbara Wegher-Thompson (and here I’m including not only the tournament ball, but the slow-mo tournament itself as well as the manipulation of fabric waves as an ocean tempest) is very well done and professional.

As I said before, great stagecraft can mask marginal performances.  And there are some marginal performances… Director Arndt has done the best he can with limited resources:  he stages a play with 46 roles with only 18 actors.  So double, triple, and quadruple-castings abound.  Only 8 of those actors are male (and two of them play a single part: Michael Herman as the narrator Gower, and Jordan Stidham in the title role).

But let’s focus on the positive… Amanda Wallace as the villainous Queen of Tarsus Dionyza, and Kayla Bailey as Pericles’ wife Thaisa, are both wonderful.  Even better is Kelly Derouin’s portrayal of Pericles’ lost daughter Marina.  The standout male performance by TJ Alvarado, who plays the King of Tarsus Cleon, as well as the first Fisherman, and the governor of Mytilene Lysimachus.  He has a very singular look: blocky, dark, with a beard… and yet, his characterizations are completely different, and we are never confused as to who he is at any moment on stage.  Excellent, too, is Alex Colello, who plays Simonides (Thaisa’s father) and Boult… the first role is a tough one, filled with comic asides when the scene he plays to the characters on stage is deadly serious, the other is a wonderfully comic turn in the bawd-house.

Jordan Stidham isn’t bad as Pericles… he’s just not as compelling as we need in a hero.  It doesn’t help that he’s pretty much undone by bad wigs.  In the first half of the play, he wears a dark brown wig that makes him look like a parody of early 80’s rock stars (complete with headband).  In the first part of the second half, his hair has turned white (with age), and it gets … well, poofy, and he looks like an outcast from a late 80’s hair / glam band.  And the less said about the huge white Kabuki-esque wig at the close of the play the better.

The costuming was a weird pastiche of periods and styles… it didn’t always work, but it was so horrible that the night was filled with distractions.  The makeup was not as successful, either, but neither was a stopstopper or a dealbreaker.

The play itself is tough: episodic, filled with narrative interruptions by Gower, fantastical, melodramatic, then filled with very broad bawdy humor in the forth act, then closing with a deus ex machina.  It could, in the wrong hands, feel heavy-handed, even laughable.  But not here.  In fact, I was surprised at how much I felt by Pericles’ reunion first with his daughter and then with his wife.

Maybe I’m getting sentimental in my old middle-age… but it was surprisingly powerfully evocative.

The run has finished and your chance to catch this production is over… but if you’re in SoCal, keep an eye out for productions coming out of Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks… because this one was very VERY good.

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