nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
April 4, 2009
I'll confess I was a little taken aback at the start of Folding Chair Classical Theatre's production of Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Sure, I had seen "bare bones" productions of Shakespeare before, but Folding Chair takes the concept of starkness to a new level. Armed only with a guitar and one chair, six actors in street clothes attempt to tackle Shakespeare's later romance in a plain room without the aid of a set, lights, sound, costumes, or props. Thankfully, they still have their talent, for this company has nonetheless found a way to present a thoroughly enjoyable production filled with spirit, clarity, and style.
Set in an unspecified world of classical antiquity, Pericles borrows from many familiar myths of the classical world, such as the suitor competitions for the hands of Atalanta and Hippodamia, the maritime wanderings of Odysseus and Aeneas, and the Sphinx riddle—and incest—of Oedipus. Prince Pericles is forced to flee for his life after correctly guessing an incestuous relationship between his would-be bride and her father Antiochus, and the play then follows his travels—and later those of his daughter, Marina—as the wheel of fortune spins and flings them far and wide.
One would think this would make a tricky play to stage given what essentially amounts to no design elements whatsoever: the 30-plus characters and varied exotic settings seem instead to beg for a production teeming with pageantry and pomp. But Folding Chair's ensemble proves this isn't necessary, and neither is elaborate stage imagery or superimposed thematic interpretations. Director Marcus Geduld has staged this work as simply as possible in a manner that feels organic and natural and truly delivers—as the company's humble mission statement indicates—a story told clearly using only the actors and the text. When Geduld does add stylization—as when the actors toss Pericles around to indicate the windswept seas—he does so in a way that is both economical and effective.
But simple isn't easy. Such an approach leaves nothing for the actors to hide behind, so it's good that this group has no reason to hide. The troupe as whole—composed of actors James Arden, Lisa Blankenship, Gowan Campbell, Larry Giantonio, Francine Margolis, and Josh Thelin—bring an impressive familiarity and facility with handling Shakespeare on the stage as well as a palpable love for the material, working together to create a very tight and impressive ensemble. Like everything about this production, the performance style and choices are direct and simple, with the actors generally sticking to the meter of the verse and creating characters and making choices that logically extend from the text. Anchoring the show in particular is Arden in the title role, who brings an optimism and decency to Pericles without making him seem too foolish or naïve.
It may all sound a bit pedestrian and uninspired in some ways, but for all its starkness, this production has extracted many surprisingly inventive moments from the text that never seem tacked on or forced. When a group of fishermen discover Pericles washed ashore at Pentapolis in what could be a throwaway scene full of exposition, they are transformed here into a family unit that allows for some wonderful sibling interactions. And later, when the knights of Pentapolis are celebrating the contest to win the hand of Pericles's future wife, Thaisa, the dancing scene is delivered with such good cheer and raucous merriment that we understand at once that the court of good Simonides is not the dangerous and corrupt court of Antiochus.
It all works well for this rather unusual Shakespeare play, a play that is full of so many twists and surprises. Pericles may not be considered one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, but it's still a good one, and this tale about dealing with the vicissitudes of fortune feels very resonant at this particular time. So does this production—it's good to know that if you ever find yourself washed ashore and stripped of all your worldly possessions you can still put up a great play.