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Pericles, Prince of Tyre

The Mystical Magic of Backyard Theater

Sweet Tea Shakespeare, 1897 Poe House, Fayetteville, North Carolina
Friday, June 15, 2018, in rental lawn chair, right corner of the stage midway back
Directed by Jessica Schiermeister

The scene is played out countless times in countless backyards: children putting on a play for neighborhood friends and parents. Their technical skills may not be polished, but they have unfettered access to, and adroit skills with, one particularly important tool: their imaginations. With that, aspiring young thespians re-create distant physical worlds with abstract applications of the physical world they have at hand and invite us to believe what they want us to believe. By watching, we accept their invitation to be transported and end up appreciating how their imaginary forces work upon us.

Production photo of Gower on a door carried by men, with other men twirling blue ribbons, and tall trees in the background
Gower (Duana M. Burby) arrives riding a raft on the ocean in Sweet Tea Shakespeare's production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, in the backyard of the 1897 Poe House in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Sweet Tea Shakespeare.

Now, here I am sitting in the backyard of a nice house in a downtown neighborhood of Fayetteville, North Carolina, watching just such a production—except these aren't children performing some well-known fairy tale. This is Sweet Tea Shakespeare performing a William Shakespeare fairy tale, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, behind the 1897 Poe House. Working with a childish script (by Shakespearean standards) and a community theater budget, Director Jessica Schiermeister uses the aesthete of children's backyard theater to gloss over the unfocused text and an uneven acting corps to create an entertainingly magical piece of theater.

To label Pericles obscure, as many do, is a misnomer. On the Shakespeare Plays Popularity Index, Pericles is tied at 24 with Henry IV, Part One (Falstaff's big debut). Pericles was initially popular enough to be published in six quarto versions in the 27 years after its composition around 1608. Yet, Pericles was not included in the First Folio. This obviously wasn't a matter of quality because Timon of Athens, an unfinished play, made it into that collection. Nor was Pericles slighted because it wasn't purely Shakespeare's as the First Folio includes Henry VIII, an acknowledged collaboration with John Fletcher. Pericles finally got into the Third Folio in 1664 though Shakespeare had always been identified as the play's author since it was first printed as a quarto in 1609. All stylistic evidence indicates he wrote the latter half of the play containing the Mytilene brothel scene—pure comedy gold—and the emotionally wringing reunion scenes at the play's climax. The first half of the play, with the narrative quality of a second-grader's tall tale, has become generally credited to George Wilkins, professional innkeeper, probable pimp, violent bully, and sometime pamphleteer and dramatist.

Many theater impresarios and directors love the play for its geographical and emotional sweep, for its esoteric quality, for the pirates that show up out of nowhere (and that's Shakespeare's doing)—in a word, for its weirdness. Pericles courts King Antiochus's gorgeous daughter, flees when he discovers their incestuous relationship, delivers corn to a famine-wracked Tarsus, shipwrecks off the coast of Pentapolis, wins King Simonedes' Princess Thaisa in a tournament but she dies giving birth to Marina during a sea storm and dumped overboard in a casket off the coast of Ephesus, where a doctor revives her and sends her to a nunnery at Diana's temple while Pericles drops off Marina in Tarsus to be raised by King Cleon and his wife Dionyza, who grows jealous as Marina grows up and plans to murder her but pirates kidnap Marina and deliver her, still a virgin, to a brothel in Myteline where Marina's wholesomeness converts all the customers, so the pimp sells her artistic skills to good houses while Pericles learns that she has died, falls into the deepest of depressions, ends up in Mytilene, reunites with Marina, and then, in a dream, Diana instructs him to go to her temple in Ephesus and tell his story at the altar, which he does for a second climactic reunion in as many scenes. All of this, by the way, is presented by the 14th century poet John Gower, who has come from the grave to serve as chorus for the story (the play's source is Gower's Confessio Amantis).

Jeremy Fiebig, Sweet Tea's founding artistic director, loves the play and has paired it in repertory with The Tempest, another Shakespeare play about shipwreck and magic. His company aspires for what he calls "the early modern ballpark atmosphere," with universal lighting and audiences enjoying food and drink while watching the play. About 70 patrons sit on lawn chairs or quilts around a play space comprising an unrolled mat of artificial turf and simple backdrop with three entrances and single light stands on the corners. The audience chows down on barbecue and Sweet Tea Shakespeare jars of tea (buy the jar for $10, refills are free) as Sweet Tea's house band, the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers, accompanied on vocals by members of the cast, performs songs themed to the play. Then the production begins.

Fiebig describes the company's productions as textually pure Shakespeare "with a children's theater and musical theater lens on the top of it." Pericles is a play in which pageantry is as much a character as Pericles himself, begging for awesome visual and digital effects. It features the heads of the Antioch princess's previous courters on display, two sea storms, a parade of knights heading for a tournament, banquets with dancing, and a goddess dropping in for a visit amid "music of the spheres." Scheiermester mines both sides of children's theater—that produced for and by children—in staging the play's events, environment, and atmosphere with endearing simplicity.

The cast wears blue or black jeans, suspenders, and t-shirts emblazoned with their identities on the front: their character's names or "gentleman," "lord," "knight," "pirate," "messenger," "sailor," "master," "servant," "virgin," "lady," "bawd" (costumes are credited to Dena Vassey, Laura Parker, and Sana Moulder for both plays). Gower (Duana M. Burby) arrives on a door carried by six men as if she's riding a raft across the tide, maintaining her balance with the waves as a sail sways behind her and blue ribbons twirl around her. The Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers, led by Sweet Tea Music Director Jacob French, a multitalented guitarist, composer, and arranger, lay down a mystical soundtrack of The Ballroom Thieves' "Lantern" ("You're shining still; Oh, you're a lantern on a hill; And I would burn into the ground; To take you home, home, home"). Gower falls back into the arms of other cast members and swims to the front of the stage and opens a trunk. The actors pull props out. Jessica Osnoe playing Thaisa pulls out a bundle of cloth representing a baby. Tohry Petty playing Helicanus, Pericles' chief advisor, takes a robe that she dons and ties at the back of her hip. Evan Bridenstine playing Antiochus takes out a crown, and Richard Adlam grabs a band of gold and a sword. He is Pericles.

The shipwreck that casts Pericles on the shores of Pentapolis becomes a similar extended interlude of music and visuals. To The Oh Hellos song "New River" ("Let it come down, let it come down, let it make in you a new river"), Adlam founders amid waving dark and light blue sheets and swimming fish (on poles) as the ship's mast, a cello, and a mermaid float past. The sequence goes one verse beyond my patience, but the kids in the audience are still staring in awe. Pericles ends up alone on the ground and spits up water before launching into his speech of latest lament. Schiermeister accomplishes a subtler sea effect when Marina (Sarah Chapman) meets the depressed Pericles on his ship anchored in the Mytilene harbor. Flags seem to whip in the wind, the cast sways in sync with waves, we hear seagulls and see birds (on poles) flying overhead, and the characters walk across a plank to embark and disembark the barque. Another piece of effective stage magic comes when Cerimon, the doctor played by Jenne Carey, elevates Thaisa as part of the mystical ceremony that revives her from her deathlike state.

Got a crowd scene? You've got an audience—use 'em. As each individual knight parades past King Simonedes (Bridenstine) and Thaisa for the tournament, cast members who have slipped in among the audience lead their section of patrons in cheers. No one is planted for Pericles; instead, the cast laughs at "the mean knight." In the post-tournament banquet as Pericles and Thaisa dance, the other knights choose dancing partners from the audience—you can bet a young boy or girl is among the chosen.

Sweet Tea's traditional MO is to cast a dozen to 15 actors and double roles. But doubling the doubling that a repertory requires proved difficult for the part-time actors, and Pericles would need several actors quintupling roles. So, Fiebig went in the opposite direction for Pericles. He cast a wide net not only to relieve the pressure on his core company but to expand the audience for this little-known Shakespeare title through the family and friends of 33 cast members plus musicians. Even so, several small parts are doubled or even quadrupled: Nathan Pearce plays Cleon, Patch-Breech, Second Gentleman of Ephesus, and First Pirate; Gage Long plays Lysimachus, First Knight, a Shipwrecked Sailor, and an Ephesus Servant; Emily Crowther plays the Antioch Messenger, a Pentapolis Servant, an Ephesus Servant, and a Virgin.

One of the most interesting role doublings is accomplished by Bridenstine playing the fathers of the two women Pericles sequentially desires to marry. As Antiochus, Bridenstine speaks like an empirical Southern sheriff and wears a crown decorated with flames. His crown as Pentapolis' King Simonedes is similar in style, except with trees instead of flames (trees similar to the emblem on Pericles' shield), and Bridenstine plays one of Shakespeare's most genuinely jolly characters to the hilt, barely containing his glee even as he pretends to be angry at his daughter and Pericles for falling in love with each other.

There's subtle work at play in Jen Pommerenke's portrayal of Dionyza, queen of Tarsus. She displays a haughtiness even in the midst of the famine wracking her country as starving people suffer on the stage around her (sort of like a President Trump cabinet member amid furloughed government workers). Pericles and his crew arriving with ears of corn garner her gratitude, but when he returns with his infant Marina and her nurse, Lychorida (Reagan Carstens), Dionyza, holding her own newborn baby, is none too pleased to be adopting the care of Pericles' girl while he returns to Tyre to get his government in order. Pierce plays the overjoyed Cleon as an honest fellow, sincerely empathetic for his famished people and sincerely grateful to Pericles, happily agreeing to watch over Marina. Pommerenke's Dionyza regards his humanity as a weakness, which she presses home with her argument that killing Marina (as she thinks has been done) was simply good parenting for their own daughter. Rather than evolving into this evil character, Pommerenke uses this last conversation as her template for Dionyza's entire arc.

Production photo of Thaisa crowning a kneeling Pericles with other castmembers around watching.
Thaisa (Jessica Osnoe) crowns "the mean knight" Pericles (Richard Adlam) with the victory wreath as her father, Simonedes (Evan Bridenstine, center) and the rest of his court and competing knights look on. Photo courtesy of Sweet Tea Shakespeare.

Adlam uses no such subtlety in his portrayal of Pericles, and that's a good choice, too. A native of Jamaica, Adlam employs his musically rich Caribbean voice to deliver Pericles' verse with emotional resonance, whether he's lusting for Antiochus's incestuous daughter, issuing a ruler's command, recovering from shipwreck, timidly courting Thaisa, or passionately mourning her death. "O you gods! Why do you make us love your goodly gifts and snatch them straight away?" Adlam's Pericles wails as he beholds Thaisa's lifeless body, and the aching in his voice triggers in my own heart the memory of lost loved ones. His hyperemotional emoting pays off big time when Pericles celebrates his unexpected reunion with his daughter Marina, which leads into the play's even more emotional climactic ending when father and daughter reunite with wife and mother. While several other characters use black eye shadow, Adlam's Pericles wears white paint around his eyes, resulting in a crying clown look. In a production that wears the play's passion on its sleeves, Adlam's performance is the mesmerizing centerpiece.

Being an outdoor performance, this show suffers some from ambient intrusions. The cicadas in the tree branches hanging over us carry on loud conversations distracting from the play's dialogue, and Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway sometimes serves as a drag-racing track just beyond the backyard fence. The band's undertow soundtrack also occasionally competes with the actors, despite the use of floor mics (could be a sound mix issue on this night). Fortunately, no such soundtrack is playing as Pericles and Marina find each other on his Mytiline-anchored ship. After that moment, Pericles begins hearing music, but it's all in his head—the other characters hear nothing. "None?" Pericles says, and Adlam, at the front of the stage, peers up toward the tree branches. "The music of the spheres!" he cries, and on cue, the cicadas start playing.

Let's see a children's backyard theater top that!

Eric Minton
January 30, 2019

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