Monday, October 17, 2016

A Pleasing Pericles

Nothing is sacred - and I like it.

Do you like Shakespeare?

Chances are that at some point in your schooling you read at least one of his plays. There's a reason for that: Shakespeare's plays are good. Some of them are REALLY good. They deserve their place in the literary canon, and they do have value today, hundreds of years after they were first written.

That being said: Shakespeare's plays are living documents, not precious treasures set in stone. So it can be really frustrating to go see Shakespeare performed, as you never know what you are going to get. Some productions pull off a full read beautifully, but with most... well, as is always my opinion: a little judicious editing can't hurt.

That's why I am always so thrilled to see Shakespeare performed by Ten Thousand Things, my favorite company in the Twin Cities and easily the best performers of Shakespeare around. Their latest offering is Pericles, a lesser-known adventure tale, which director Michelle Hensley not only cropped down to a tight two hour length but even re-wrote portions of to modernize it a bit. Heresy? Some might say so, but to me it's the best arrangement for comprehension and breathing new life into what could otherwise become a theatrical dinosaur.

Pericles tells the story of Pericles, the king of Tyre, and the mishaps he befalls as he travels throughout life. It begins with a very unsettling quest to find a bride and instead encountering an incestuous, rapey father (King Antiochus). Fleeing the father (and unfortunately leaving the princess to her fate), Pericles decides to travel the world until such time as Antiochus is dead and he is no longer threatened with divulging the evil king's secret. Pericles travels first to Tarsus, where he saves the people from a terrible famine. From there he comes to Pentapolis, where he falls in love with and marries the Princess Thaisa and is very happy for a while.

Antiochus dies and Pericles sets to return home to rule Tyre with his pregnant wife, but unfortunately they never get there. They are beset by a storm while Thaisa goes into labor, and dies in childbirth. She is thrown overboard and the Princess Marina, Pericles' infant daughter, is left in Tarsus on the way home to be raised by the still-grateful royalty there. Everything seems set, except: Marina grows up to be a wonderful woman and rival to the princess of Tarsus; beset by jealousy, her host tries to kill Marina, Marina is kidnapped and sold to a brothel; and Marina takes life into her own hands to save herself from desperate straights. Thaisa is also not dead after she is dumped into the sea, and washes on the shores of Ephesus. She is highly aggrieved at Pericles' quickness in throwing her overboard and becomes a priestess to the goddess Diana. Pericles returns to fetch Marina and is informed she has been killed. He puts himself into silent martyrdom aboard his ship until one day, Marina is brought upon his boat and they are accidentally reunited, as well as reunited with Thaisa thanks to the goddess Diana's intervention.
Complicated, right? I'm pretty sure there are about a dozen places in the above synopsis where you cringed, wondered what the heck was wrong with Pericles, and otherwise had a hard time relating as a modern person. That's what's so great about this production - Hensley has constructed it to be not only a performance but a critique of Pericles and the morals it holds, and it makes the play far more interesting than it would otherwise have been.

It helps that the performers are excellent and the cast is highly diverse. Theaters, take note: no one does diversity and representation better than Ten Thousand Things, and there are quite a few companies that NEED to learn from their process. The parts are perfectly cast, anyone can play an interchangeable role, and their chemistry is off the charts. It's awesome.

Ansa Akyea is quietly wonderful as Pericles, forcing the audience to empathize with him even though his actions are so misguided. Audrey Park is strong as the Queen Thaisa and a good pair with Akyea. Pearce Bunting is terrifying as a series of villains, including King Antiochus; the sailor who petitions to throw Thaisa overboard; Leonine, a murderous henchman; and Bawd, the brothel owner who purchases Marina. Bunting has a distinctly Willem DaFoe vibe (no really, he's a dead ringer), and he completely owns the villainous space for this story.
The standout of the cast is Maggie Chestovich, who plays multiple roles with consuming passion. Chestovich makes every word of the script ring clear as a bell, and her well timed antics not only aid comprehension of the story but provide some much-needed laughter throughout this heavy tale. I've seen her in multiple productions and she's always wonderful - if the only reason you go see this is her, GO. She's amazing. The rest of the cast is also excellent, and you won't be disappointed with their thoughtful performances.

Pericles may not be at the top of most peoples' lists of favorite Shakespeare plays, but this is a version well worth seeing. No one performs Shakespeare better than Ten Thousand Things, and this judiciously and modernly edited version is well adapted to today's needs. It's super affordable and supports a great cause.

I really, really love the mission and execution of Ten Thousand Things and I am totally okay with providing a shameless plug in their favor here. Their productions are excellent, affordable, and most importantly are far removed from the ivory tower we so often think of theater as residing. Ten Thousand Things performs in prisons, homeless shelters, schools, church basements and more, with the lights totally on and little bells and whistles to speak of - just completely excellent performances that take your breath away. Their mission clearly states:
"Ten Thousand Things brings award-winning, high-quality theater to people with little access to the wealth of the arts. This company invigorates ancient tales, classic stories, and contemporary plays through vital, open interactions between actors and non-traditional audiences."
PLEASE, please donate, or if you go, make sure you pay for a ticket. Think of every purchased TTT ticket as a donation to help someone else see the show too (like a pair of Toms shoes) and it is an extremely worthy cause. For more information about Ten Thousand Things, click here; to donate, click here; and to see Pericles, click here to find information and get tickets.