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Tossed around

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Ouelette

With Thomas Cork ’00, Sarah Cohen ’00, Fernando J. Paiz G, Damon Suden ’99, Marketa Valterova ’99, Fernando Padilla ’99, Ann-Marie White G, Mitali Dhar ’99, Jenny Matta, and others

Presented by MIT Shakespeare Ensemble

March 12, 13, 18, 19, and 20 at 8 P.M.

La Sala de Puerto Rico

All generalizations are wrong, including this one. At the risk of falling into this particular trap, let me generalize. There are roughly -- very roughly -- two ways to do theatre. The first one is going for the maximum suspension of disbelief, where the audience is so drawn in by the events and characters on stage that it temporary forgets -- at least, stops thinking about -- the fact that all it sees is the people on stage, dressed in ridiculous outfits and talking to each other in strange manner. The second one is diametrically opposite, concentrating on pure acting, usually unencumbered by such additions as costumes, sets, or props. Of course, most productions occupy a position somewhere between these two extreme points; “Pericles” attempts to join two aspects, realistic theatre and rather abstract presentation. In the process, it has to search for a compromise between these highly incompatible positions. The results are highly uneven.

The play itself is a prime example of such compromises. The story of Pericles, the prince of Tyre, whose life is tossed around by fate as much as his body is thrown by the numerous ocean storms he goes through, is told in snapshot-like scenes, connected by the narration of the omniscient Chorus, who also spends a good deal of time begging for the audience to be lenient and forgive the theatrical devices the play is using when communicating such an epic story. The narrative doesn’t really work here; I could chalk it to the fact that the modern audience is less used to such a theatrical device as Shakespeare’s contemporaries, or perhaps to the fact that it rudely disrupts any suspension of disbelief -- all of this is quite likely true, and applies here, but I think there’s a more important reason why it feels wrong. Shakespeare also uses Chorus in many other plays, including “Henry V” and “Romeo and Juliet” -- and it works, providing non-intrusive yet helpful commentary. Here, it sticks out, simply because “Pericles” is written as series of rather brief scenes, each of them being relatively slow paced, interspersed with entirely too many instances of narration, which is pitched at crazy space, narrating such major events as ocean storms, losses of whole armies, deaths of important characters, etc., in the space of a few seconds.

But never mind that. Shakespeare is, no doubt, a brilliant playwright, and as great a poet. His qualities as a writer, namely, his abilities to tell a consistently paced story are much less impressive. What made the story of “Pericles” so unsatisfying is that something very similar was done two centuries later by Voltaire, and the story is “Candide.” There are more than a few similarities between these two -- each one is a story about a decent man, who is mercilessly abused by the gods, who rarely grant him a moment of peace and content, and only to follow it up with some outlandish cruelty. Both his friends and his enemies are killed all along the way -- although a good deal of them come back to life sooner or later. But the important quality of Voltaire’s novel was that all of that plot, ultimately, didn’t matter in the least -- and that was the whole point of the book. In the case of “Pericles” the plot seems paramount, and that’s why constant interruptions and pace fluctuations feel so distracting.

That’s not to say that “Pericles” is only concerned with the plot; there’s a sizable amount of subtext as well, with some cleverly drawn underlying parallels. For example, evenly spaced throughout the narrative, there are three variations on the father-daughter relationship with at least some incestuous flavor; and the whim of the gods seems to spite Pericles as much as his foes. But, to be frank, if during the scene all I can think about is “Gee, isn’t this a subtextual parallel to the opening sequence?!”, then it’s a sure sign that I’m not really involved with the show.

Which brings me back to my original point about the compromise between realistic and abstract theatre; and enough kicking poor Shakespeare, who’s dead, and therefore can’t kick back. It wasn’t only the play which made me feel very much like poor Pericles, tossed right and left by the forces way beyond my control; the Shakespeare Ensemble production made me feel very much this way. What didn’t work for me is the impression that this production attempted to be both realistic and abstract. Almost all the time, these two clash.

The abstract is clearly exemplified by the set, the entirely bare stage, a small inclined rectangle with an adjacent small staircase which is used to represent several kingly palaces, the wild seashore, the ship deck, etc. The costumes are minimalistic, with most of the cast wearing basic black with only a few removable pieces to signify the particular character. With its stark visuals, like the actors in black against the pitch-black backdrop, or a bright red carpet diagonally crossing the stage, or a huge sail, tremulously billowing upstage, “Pericles” definitely looks like it’s going for the abstract feel, Actions in Space, with no extraneous detail to encumber the narrative.

And yet, it asks, both explicitly via the Chorus’ entreaties, and implicitly, via some unexpectedly placed set and costume pieces, to think of it as a necessarily limited, but still realistic representation of the world of the play. And that was really impossible to achieve; every time I would get used to the new stark scene, some pesky detail would launch itself at me and stick until it had succeeded in completely destroying any internal consistency. There’s the fact that one fisherman smokes a cigarette, and the fact that Pericles pleads to show him a piece of armor which is, oh, about two feet away from him, and the fact that the said piece of armor, in which the title character wins a major tournament is just a couple of silly-looking tin shoulder pads.

Of course, it was hard for me to adjust to the scene changes. The actors, the brilliant star-studded cast, a virtual “who’s who” of MIT acting talent, feel perfectly relaxed in this environment, demonstrating admirable ability to exist even in this half-real half-abstract space. What they are not, unfortunately, is fun to watch -- at least, for long stretches of time, with the energy level being dangerously low.

Pericles (Thomas Cork) is earnest, and -- no, that’s about it. I didn’t feel a single wrong note in Cork’s performance, but he is not given many notes to play, with his part calling for alternatively being indignantly earnest, humbly earnest, or patiently earnest. Sarah Cohen is convincing and inventive and entertaining as Chorus -- if only I didn’t find the Chorus so intrusive. The usually effervescent Damon Suden, playing a tormented monarch and a religious guru seems to be forcing himself to be deadly serious, and a good deal of potentially funny material is downplayed.

The rest of the cast is adequate, but doesn’t provide much entertainment value -- with two notable exceptions. Ann-Marie White takes a stock part of an old man, a figure of trust and authority, who doesn’t really do anything and is used merely to provide an anchor of stability -- and she runs away with it, stealing every scene she’s in. Fernando Paiz has a marvelous scene as a father resorting to some unusual tactics to ensure his daughter’s happiness.

So I was sitting there during the intermission, thinking all this, feeling rather disappointed. Then the second act started.

Boy, was I wrong.

This is not to say that I changed my mind regarding all I’ve listed above. All of this applies to the second act as well, including some rather strange costumes (mostly for female cast members), one character incongruously chewing on a cigar, and somewhat irregular pacing. But the important thing is that none of it matters in the least, because the whole thing works, drawing a straight and utterly convincing narrative line through all and any objections I might have.

The main thing that ushers this highly welcome change is the appearance of the new character, Pericles’ daughter Marina (Marketa Valterova). This performance is not quite in the same league as Valterova’s last performance, the transcendent title part in “The Good Person of Sezuan” -- it has more rough edges. A couple of spots include her introduction as someone perfect in every aspect, including music -- upon which Marina sings a few notes somewhat off-key; and too mild a transition from an innocent young woman to an attempted murder victim. But, other than this, Valterova exudes stage presence, and, most importantly, her character actually is not content with things done to her by other people (which is the fate of her eternally suffering father) -- but does take charge, and her actions actually depend on her character.

Which was when I realized what really bothered me all along. Very little in the first act depends on the characters; whether it’s the gods, the playwright, or the director who decides on their fate -- but there is very little character development, and even less depends on these characters.

The situation couldn’t be more different in Act II, with not only Marina virtually becoming a real lead, but with other actors turning loose, funny, and touching. There’s Jenny Matta together with Fernando Paiz (in his third speaking part in this production) as brothel proprietors, and Fernando Padilla as a morally conflicted governor. Most notably, Damon Suden finally gets a chance to be funny, and as a result he creates a character who is despicable, hilarious, and utterly human. As a particular grace note, there are two emotional reunion scenes, which really matter, because Pericles himself gets something to be passionate about, and Thomas Cork finally gets a chance to be both heartbroken and hopeful for the future.

So the second act finally got the story right, and that’s the thing that matters. And everything seemed fine -- at least, until I again remembered Candide. Maybe it’s the simple case of cultural and historical proximity -- after all, Voltaire’s novel is half as old as “Pericles” -- but I prefer the later incarnation of the world-weary wanderer. The thing is, after all his wild travels and travails, Candide realized that the only thing he can still do in this world is make sure that his garden grows. It’s half touching and half sad that all Pericles seemed to have learned is that all is indeed for the best in this best of possible worlds.