PlayMakers Rep
Through Oct. 12

In Pericles, Shakespeare’s absurd yet lifelike tragi-comedy, we follow the Prince of Tyre through many adventures in love, loss and shipwreck, before arriving at what we all are longing fora happy ending to a tale of woe.

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s producing artistic director Joseph Haj could not have foreseen when he scheduled this play the miserable tempest of venality, sly corruption, pandering and deceit in which we would find ourselves tossing by its opening night. But he got lucky when he planned to open PRC’s season with one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, and the timing only reinforces Pericles‘ point: We are not entirely masters or mistresses of our destinies. We may live honorably, love truly and express all the virtues, and still be dashed on the rocks of loss while villains prosper. Call it luck, fate or the will of the goddess, some force will spin us strangely askew from our intentions and desiresbefore turning us, yet again, toward surprising sweet fortune. That sweetness is solace for all the pain endured, but Shakespeare goes one better in this play. He reminds us that you can still laugh along the way.

There is considerable doubt among scholars that Shakespeare was the sole author of Pericles, and certainly the play itself is uneven in its dramatic rhythm and its verbal brilliance, with its second half being much more coherent than the first. Haj, who had wanted for years to direct it, has made excellent choices for the production. As a result, it’s clear why Pericles was an audience favorite in Shakespeare’s lifetimealthough it fell into disfavor and has been staged comparatively rarely since 1642.

The cast includes some of PRC’s strongest actors, capable of switching from one character type to a very different one with the flick of a costume. Kenneth P. Strong is particularly fine as the warm Helicanus and the chilling Cleon. Joy Jones is even more impressive in her split-second changes (she, in particular, is greatly aided by costumer McKay Coble’s clever art).

The play rides, of course, on the abilities of its Pericles, and new faculty actor Scott Ripley does not disappoint. He is fine as the dashing young cockerel, ready for any challenge; he is charming as the young man deeply in love, and touching as the bereft widower. But he really shows us what he’s got in the crucial scene in which he is reunited with the daughter he believes dead, and in which it would be easy to slip into flippancy or sentimental melodrama. Ripley gives us both the pathos and the joy.

Jan Chambers’ spare and graceful scenic design incorporating sea and clouds, augmented by video projections by Francesca Talenti and superb lighting by Justin Townsend, is one of the best ever seen in the Paul Green Theatre. But most vital to the overall success of this production is the music. Composer and musician Jack Herrick, well known locally as a Red Clay Rambler, has created a shimmering aural net that wreathes the action with wonderful sounds. In places, he has incorporated the play’s text into song; in others, he has composed compatible lyrics; but most of the music is instrumental, and he is aided in its making by numerous cast members who periodically join him in his musical aerie on the back wall. Herrick himself plays several synthesizers, mandolin, flute and bandolier while actors appear as needed on guitar, drums, trumpet and violins. The full integration of music and song into the play gives it a unity it might otherwise lack, and makes for a happy journey to the happy ending.