Review: Fiasco Theater’s ‘Pericles,’ the Cruise of a Lifetime

Review: Fiasco Theater’s ‘Pericles,’ the Cruise of a Lifetime

“Pericles” is a bit of a mess. Spanning decades and traversing the ancient Mediterranean like some deeply misbegotten Carnival Cruise, this Shakespeare play mingles comedy, tragedy and Christian allegory. There are two assassination plots, two shipwrecks, a brothel, a riddle, a tournament and some very convenient pirates. Deliberately anachronistic, it was described by Ben Jonson, a rival playwright, as a “mouldy tale” and “stale.”

So, who better to face down this confusion than a company called Fiasco? A devised theater ensemble founded by half a dozen Brown MFA graduates, Fiasco has a soft spot for Shakespeare’s less loved works. The company broke out in 2011 with a production of “Cymbeline” and later staged “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” (Fiasco’s 2017 production of a crowd-pleaser like “Twelfth Night”? An outlier.)

Rather than relying on the published text of “Pericles,” Fiasco has set much of the poetry to music — sometimes supplying original words — and interpolated passages from a prose version by George Wilkins, a pamphleteer and publican. (Wilkins is often cited as the play’s co-author, mostly because scholars disbelieve that Shakespeare could have written anything as patchy as the first two acts.)

Ben Steinfeld, a company member and the director, stages this revised text at Classic Stage Company using Fiasco’s poor-theater playbook — a mostly bare stage furnished with charisma, invention, spirit and song. “A miracle may come your way,” an early number promises.

Through the hectic first half, this approach falters. Pericles (Paco Tolson at first, then Tatiana Wechsler, Noah Brody and finally Devin E. Haqq) goes to so many places in such a short time that characters and climes blur, especially without the help of scenery to differentiate each country. As Steinfeld’s narrator admits, “Now this is just an empty space/It’s hard to give a sense of place.” (No set designer is credited, though Ashley Rose Horton designed the vaguely Grecian costumes and Mextly Couzin the golden lighting.)

The stagecraft can feel scanty — a satin sheet stands in for a shipwreck — although the extra-textual moments, like the jousting tournament, are staged with the most vigor. And while the idea of having four actors play Pericles in turn is wise to the ways that a human might change over a lifetime, it saps interest in and identification with the character.

Midway through, “Pericles” finds its sea legs, mostly because the action shifts to Pericles’s daughter, Marina, played by the luminous Emily Young. This also signals the play’s move away from struggle and loss and toward redemption and joy, more natural keys for Fiasco, which has always excelled at comedy. The brothel scenes, in which a chaste Marina reforms would-be customers, are sprightly. And the ending, among Shakespeare’s best, is suitably moving. But the chief delight here, as in any Fiasco show, is watching the actors work with such fluency and in such communion, supporting and enjoying one another’s work. That’s not quite a miracle, but it’s reason enough to set sail.

Pericles
Through March 24 at Classic Stage Company Manhattan; classicstage.org. Running time: 2 hours.

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