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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Sass at Guthrie Lab packs Pericles
with high-jinks

Pericles
Ron Menzel as Pericles
I read Shakespeare's Pericles before seeing the Guthrie Lab's playfully exuberant production and felt as though Shakespeare wrote the first acts of the play in a bit of a rush, before he moved into the full grace of his language for the closing acts; and director Joel Sass' seems to have intuited the same thing. He directs the first two thirds of Pericles in his over-the-top style, including campy touches and hints of the macabre. In the opening scene, I resisted, thinking - here we go again - but I was soon won over by this spirited production's often simple, but wonderful, theatricality. In the closing acts, Sass steps back to let Shakespeare's poetry work its own magic.

Pericles is an episodic and, at times, dark, hero quest that belongs firmly in the world of fairy tales. Shakespeare gives it a narrator from the grave, the other-worldly old Gower (Shawn Hamilton), who moves the story from episode to episode, and Sass brushes all with the Persian exoticism of the Arabian Nights. That said, this production is not for children; it can be quite naughty.

The hero Pericles sets off to answer a riddle to win a beautiful princess. He decodes the riddle but learns that the princess and her father are engaged in incest. Fearing her father's murderous intent, he flees, traveling from land to land, being shipwrecked, falling in love with another princess, losing his queen to the sea and his daughter to envy and pirates, then, in the miraculous way of fairy tales, being reunited with both.

This is a true ensemble production, with eight actors playing some 40 parts - and it works. Attired all in white, in the manner of heroes (complete with a gold breast plate that has six-pack abs), Ron Menzel plays handsome and wholesome Pericles. He also plays Pander, the low-life brothel owner. Beautiful Teria Birlon plays both Thaisa, Pericles' noble young queen, and the Bawd, wife to the brothel owner. The Bawd's pendulous, melon-sized breasts swing, and she hikes up her skirt to sponge her parts. Charming Leah Curney is Marina, Pericles' daughter. She's as fresh as a morning in May and quick-witted. Curney also plays the incestuous princess. Kate Eifrig, Lee Mark Nelson, Randy Reyes and Steve Lewis round out this versatile cast and play multiple roles.

The glee the artistic team seems to have had in designing Pericles radiates off the stage. Costumer Amelia Busse Cheever has created rich Persian turbans and pantaloons, a black, Morticia Addams-like dress of sweeping silk for Dionysia (Eifrig) and a dress that ripples like the sea for Thaisa.

John Clark Donahue backs his set of a canted paved platform with a stone wall that is pierced by a huge, storm sewer-sized hole. Through this porthole, or lens, the shifting scenes change, from a glimpsed city in the distance, to storms at sea of billowing silk and a dry desert-scape. A portcullis closes to make a prison and, when the hole becomes the portal to a brothel, it looks distinctly pubic. Lighting designer Marcus Dilliard paints all with scene and mood-changing light, and composer Greg Brosofske's music conjures the Middle East.

Director Sass spent three years designing with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and he infuses Pericles with brilliant touches of theatricality from the Jeune Lune tradition. The bad princess lounges among tigers, women whose tiger masks, worn on the tops of their heads rather than on their faces, allow for realistic feline sinuousness. When Pericles sets sail, a stick puppet boat surges on billows of silk. Pirates shove Marina into the sea; we hear her splash in Andrew Mayer's sound design, and her spray is a handful of up-thrown glitter. Best of all is the knights' tournament to win the hand of Thaisa. Three knights wear gloriously painted and dressed horses that mince and prance and shy. I won't tell you what destitute Pericles rides; it would spoil the fun.

And I haven't mentioned the other props: a giant fish, a bowl of grain, with a mast and sail planted in it to represents Pericles' ship, bringing relief to famine, and a life-size camel skeleton.

This Pericles bears the thumbprint of director Sass's lavish, tongue-in-cheek style, but here, it is controlled. The coy titillation inherent in the opening scene is toned down; get past that and much joy lies ahead.

Pericles February 12 - March 6, 2005. Tuesdays & Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Saturdays 7:00 p.m. Matinees 1:00 p.m. on selected Saturdays and Sundays. Guthrie Lab, 700, North First Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-377-2224. Toll free: 877-44-STAGE. www.guthrietheater.org.


Photo Michal Daniel


- Elizabeth Weir



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