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Ben Steinfeld (Photo: Austin Ruffer)




By Deirdre Donovan


When Ben Steinfeld strolls out with a guitar to sing Gower's Prologue in Fiasco Theater's Pericles, you immediately feel that you're in good hands. Steinfeld is wearing a troubadour's outfit, and there's a confident air in everything he does. His eyes scan the audience; his voice caresses each verse he sings; his monologue maps out Shakespeare's premise with eloquent economy.

The Spartan set he moves through'a bare stage with various wooden crates serving as makeshift seats for his fellow performers-promise an evening of unadulterated theater. And once we meet his fellow-performers-Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen, Devin E. Haqq, Paco Tolson, Tatiana Wechsler, and Emily Young-our anticipation only increases.

Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson famously dubbed Pericles "a mouldy tale." Whether that description was prompted out of professional jealousy (Pericles was a crowd-pleaser in its first days on stage in Jacobean London) or was a reference to the ghost of the English poet John Gower who performs the Chorus, Pericles dropped off in popularity over the years.

True, it still can intimidate the most intrepid directors with its sprawling geography that takes its protagonist all over the ancient Mediterranean world. Add in a couple of tempests, shipwrecks, and pirates, and one has a wild and wooly tale indeed.

Steinfeld, as director, navigates through its dramatic waters with admirable ease. No question he's taken some poetic license with this production. For starters, he's relying on a script that has been adapted by Fiasco Theater, which uses portions of text from George Wilkins prose narrative, Painful Adventures of Pericles. He's also eliminated the dumb shows in Shakespeare's original, pared-down and transposed speeches, and tweaked the language to give the play a more contemporary vibe.

That said, Fiasco's script remains faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare's original. Which, incidentally, is now widely accepted as a collaboration between the low-life George Wilkins (He was an "inn-keeper" who more than likely ran a brothel) and Shakespeare, with the first two acts attributed to Wilkins and the remaining ones to Shakespeare.



Paco Tolson (Photo: Austin Ruffer)


The script's peculiarities aside, here's the plot of Pericles in a nutshell: It recounts the epic journey of Prince Pericles of Tyre, who travels from Antioch, to Tyre, to Tarsus, to Pentapolis, to Mytilene, and straight on to Ephesus. That's right- six geographic locales in the world of this play! And Pericles, like the Biblical Job, will experience a sea of troubles before his fortune changes.

Be prepared to see a quartet of actors'Noah Brody, Devin E. Haqq, Paco Tolson, and Tatiana Wechsler-- performing the role of Pericles. It's not for nothing that Fiasco is called an ensemble company. Indeed, it provides a refreshing prism effect to the protagonist's rather flat characterization. Pericles, who has often been called a passive hero (Things tend to happen to him instead of him taking action) gains more dimension as the four actors put their own stamp on him.


The blocking of scenes is well-done. Take the opener, in which Pericles hopes to win the hand of King Antiochus beautiful daughter by solving the king's riddle, which, if he fails, costs him his life. As Pericles ponders Antiochus gnomic rhyme that veils his incestuous relationship with his child, the audience watches as several actors create a grisly tableau in the round, aping the corpses of the daughter's former suitors.

Fortunately, other scenes are less dark, with one set in Pentapolis being quite in synch with our culture today that encourages inclusiveness. Case in point: Pericles, who in this sketch is performed by Tatiana Weschsler, successfully woos King Simonedes daughter, Thaisa (Jessie Austrian). As the two lovers prepare for their same-sex royal marriage, the audience witness a show-stopping kiss between them.

Fast forward to the brothel scene, awash with irony. Suffice it to say, Pericles daughter Marina (Emily Young) falls on hard times and is kidnapped in Tarsus by pirates and later sold to brothel-keepers in Mytilene. Instead of becoming what the Governor Lysimachus (Tolson) refers to as "a creature of sale," however, Marina converts the Governor and her other customers to honest lives, much to the rage of the Bawd (Austrian) who spews out: "She would make a puritan of the devil if he should cheapen a kiss of her."


Jesse Austrian, Tatiana Weschler (Photo: Austin Ruffer)


There's no doubt that the Act 5 reunion scene of Pericles with his daughter is a masterpiece. In Steinfeld's staging, this scene is especially poignant, given that Pericles soundly slaps his daughter as she approaches him in his ship's pavilion, causing her to cry out in pain: "I said, my lord, if you did know my parentage,/ You would not do me violence."

Fortunately, Pericles, after some in-depth questioning, realizes that this young woman is Marina indeed. And the moment that this truth is revealed to him is one of the greatest moments in all Shakespeare's canon.

The acting is top-notch, and it would be a crime to single out any performers from the others. But a quick shout out is due to Andy Grotelueschen whose King Simonedes is sheer perfection as he pretends to doubt his future son-in-law's worth. And I would be remiss not to mention Emily Young's Marina, who infuses her character with such sincere goodness that it restores one's faith in youth again.

If one yearns to see a production of Pericles that truly revivifies Shakespeare's 1608 play, Fiasco's version won't disappoint. Or to borrow the words of Jill Rafson, the Classic Stage Company's producing artistic director, from her program note: "With clarity, humor, imagination, and vibrant music, the brilliant storytellers of Fiasco are themselves a reason to revisit this tale today."



Through March 24.

At the Classic Stage Company

136 East 13th Street

Running time: 1 hour; 45 minutes with intermission.