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Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Flor De Liz Perez and Raffi Barsoumian
Photo by Richard Termine

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is not commonly said to contain William Shakespeare's finest writing. Hamlet's soliloquies, Lady Macbeth's descent into madness, A Midsummer Night's Dream's Pyramus and Thisbe, King Lear—all these (and more) are cited much more readily as being the best of The Bard. But the first scene of Act V of Pericles is, to my mind, as good as any of them, and The Public Theater's Mobile Shakespeare Unit production of the show, which is playing at the company's Lafayette Street home through the end of the month, treats it expertly.

The titular ruler (portrayed here by Raffi Barsoumian) has endured all manner of hardships over much of the last two decades: assassination attempts, shipwrecks, losing his wife in childbirth and giving up his daughter soon after. And the girl Marina (Flor De Liz Perez) has known suffering as well: She's an orphan who was taken in by royalty but fell afoul of them and was sent out to be killed, then she was captured by pirates and made to work in a brothel where every day was a new battle to maintain her virginity. Few in Shakespeare have had to endure such wrenching ordeals.

So when the two finally find each other, the effect is bewitching—if not outright overwhelming. Tentative at first, unsure of whether they'll be accepted for their checkered pasts, they dance around the issue of whether they belong together. But finally, when facts and feelings become too difficult to ignore, they come together and recognize the unique love they share, bringing to a richly satisfying close years of pain they (and you) had every reason to believe had left them emotionally inert. That Barsoumian and Perez play the loss and the hopelessness so fully, and then give themselves over just as completely to resulting joy, is what makes the exchange a wonder of feeling and theatre, perhaps the crowning moment of the MSU to date.

Unfortunately, director Rob Melrose has not reached the same heights elsewhere in this production. If the play has a legitimately gorgeous conclusion—and it extends well beyond even what's already been described—it lays a number of traps for itself in getting there. Like Shakespeare's other late-career romances (primarily The Tempest and The Winter's Tale, the latter of which it resembles more than superficially), Pericles is stuffed with action and activity, and so skirts the border between comedy and tragedy that the slightest nudge is enough to send it in the wrong direction. And for most of what precedes the finale of this intermissionless, 100-minute distillation, Melrose doesn't stop nudging.

The characters are all swathed in colorful costumes (by Moria Sine Clinton) that instantly identify them as being from Tyre, Pentapolis, and Ephesus, and sometimes bear accents to match (the king and the queen who take in Pericles's daughter are haughty upper-crust trend-setters who are never seen outside of several layers of fur; the madam of the brothel in which Marina lands apparently just moved to Mytilene from Brooklyn). Intrigue is suggested by furtive, crouched down movements by men in sunglasses (usually the highly versatile Ben Mehl). A joust is depicted, more than half-jokingly, by men "riding" around on stools held between their legs and slapping each other on the shoulders with their hands.

Such instances, and others, are innovative staging solutions that make good sense for the nontraditional venues (schools, correctional institutions, and the like) where the MSU typically plays. But when accompanied by broad acting that, if committed, looks as though it's come out of the "Not Another" movie series or, at the high end, outtakes from a Daily Show skit, they mold the first two-thirds of the evening into an uncomfortably eager laugh-fest. Besides being at odds with Shakespeare's writing—which, if considerably brighter in tone than his tragedies, hovers well above the pure froth of, say, The Comedy of Errors—it endangers the important resolutions still to come.

We need to fervently believe all the drama and the darkness so we can escape to the light later; there may be punctuations of laughs throughout (Pericles's early exchange with the fishermen comes to mind), but humor can't be the controlling force. Here it is, and except for Barsoumian, who marshals a light-hearted brood that lets us see the Prince as a man who can handle joy and desolation alike, and Perez, who creates a Marina who's fetchingly innocent but not remotely stupid, the actors are uneven and unsteady. Amanda Quaid, whose main characters are the madam and the scheming queen Dionyza, comes closest of the others to finding the proper balance. Otherwise, the tone is inconsistent and often unsettling.

If these choices sap Pericles of much of its potential power in the run-up to Act V, even they can't stop the stampede once it starts. Letting Barsoumian and Perez loose on that scene, and letting them do what the best actors do best, is by far the best choice Melrose has made. If it's not quite enough to make up for the production's other stumbles, it's utterly captivating for the few minutes required for them to find in each other what they've so long sought—and for you to wipe your eyes dry of the tears that will have no doubt accumulated in watching them.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Through November 30
Please see the Public Theater website for performance locations and dates.
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