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Problematic Pericles polished into gem of a play

Because Pericles is a happy story of a miraculous family reunion, it might be hard to understand why this late Shakespeare play is so seldom produced.
Although Pericles is not one of Shakespeare’s better or even better known plays, under the direction of Lois Anderson it’s transformed into a feast for the eyes and ears.

Because Pericles is a happy story of a miraculous family reunion, it might be hard to understand why this late Shakespeare play is so seldom produced. The synopsis is the tipoff: there’s a huge amount of complicated backstory and not one but two resurrections from the seemingly dead. Two shipwrecks. Two contests (one related, one performed) to win the hand of two different princesses (one seen, one not). Shakespeare has used, as Ben Jonson suggested, “scraps out of every dish.”

Director Lois Anderson cuts through it all with a clearer, cleaner line than either Shakespeare or the suspected co-writer George Wilkins ever imagined. While it feels a little like Sesame Street, the various locations and their rulers are indicated by Cerimon (David Warburton), a healer in Ephesus, with a row of baskets, bowls and little clay figures removed one by one from onstage sand boxes as if from an archaeological site. This clay figure, for example, is King Antiochus of Antioch and this, his daughter. But it sets the play up, we know who’s who and we learn that the action of the play is initiated by Pericles’ discovery of the incestuous relationship between king and child. Fearing for his life, Pericles sails from Antioch to Tharsus, Pentapolis and, eventually, Ephesus.

The story may be complicated, repetitive and messy but Anderson’s vision is not only clear but also gorgeously exotic; she takes us to the Middle East and you can almost smell the spices and feel the warm desert sand. Carmen Alatorre’s costume palette ranges from colourfully embroidered silks to distressed, layered cotton — cotton scarves and shawls that miraculously becomes the gunwales of a boat or the sailor-drowning waves of a storm-tossed sea. Malcolm Dow’s soundscape is sinewy with the harmonies and rhythms of the East. John Webber washes Amir Ofek’s set in the warm colours of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is, in short, a visual/aural feast for the eyes and ears.

Anderson takes huge liberties with the original and they all pay off. Making Cerimon both character and chorus makes sense and provides a storytelling backbone to the play. Anticipating the arrival of Pericles — ailing, mute and heartbroken over the death of his long lost daughter Marina — Cerimon “conjures” the story of Pericles’ hardships for his recently hired young assistant. This backstory makes up most of the play.

In the role of Pericles, Kamyar Pazandeh is handsome and dashing, a suitable match for Thaisa (lovely Sereana Malani), daughter of Simonides (Ian Butcher). Luisa Jojic is Marina, so upright and honourable that, when pirated into prostitution, she sends all her would-be clients away, chastised. Jojic’s joy when Marina discovers herself as a character in Cerimon’s story is girlishly exuberant.

Jeff Gladstone makes a cold, calculating Dionyza, wife of King Cleon and he doubles and triples in various roles, including fisherman and sailor.

Outstanding in this production is Kayla Deorksen as the Bawd. It’s not a huge role but Deorksen makes it memorable. Glittery of eye, and alternating between fawning and ferocious, she’s snakelike in her physicality, waspish in her attitude. Even as one of the sailors, she’s a standout.

Director Anderson was a big part of the much-loved, much-missed Leaky Heaven Circus, and this production is, at times, clever and playful in the way Leaky Heaven was. Pericles is not a great play. As heroes go, Pericles does not come away with great self-awareness. But this Bard presentation is a treasure trove of invention. If the play itself doesn’t have great lasting quality, director Anderson’s re-envisioning of it certainly does.

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Pericles is at Bard on the Beach until Sept. 18. For tickets, call 604-739-0559 or go to