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High-Seas Adventure Aboard Chicago Shakespeare Theater's 'Pericles'

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 14, 2014 8:00PM

'Pericles' at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Shakespeare’s Pericles isn’t quite sure what to make of itself.

One of the Bard’s later plays, only half of which was supposedly written by Shakespeare himself, Pericles has a unique tone—it’s not quite a comedy or a romance, but it’s not a tragedy, either.

There are certainly more significant Shakespearean plays. Others are more poetic, or more high-stakes. But at some point in between the Hamlets and the King Lears, it’s refreshing to see Shakespeare play a little loose, and the lush—albeit lengthy—production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater helps this so-called “problem play” do exactly that.

Today, Pericles isn’t nearly as widely produced as the works in the First Folio, but, in Shakespeare’s day, the play was immensely popular—and it’s not hard to see why.


Pericles (Ben Carlson) seems like a more benevolent, savvier Candide. Both flee their homelands—in Pericles’ case, after angering an incestuous king—and find a bevy of adventure, love and sorrow on the run. Unlike Candide, however, Pericles lacks a proclivity toward melodrama and isn’t nearly as self-serving. (Sorry, Voltaire.)

Pericles decides to hide out in Tarsus, and, upon arriving, provides ships full of corn to the starving citizenry, evoking the eternal gratitude of King Cleon (Torrey Hanson) and Queen Dionyza (Lia D. Mortensen). No longer worried that there’s a price on his head, Pericles sets sail back to his homeland, Tyre, but is quickly tossed overboard by a raging tempest. (Scott Davis' set design, the whole of which resembles the smooth planks of a weathered ship, transitions easily from sea to shore.) Pericles washes up in Pentapolis and finds himself mired in a jousting contest to win the hand of Thaisa (Lisa Berry), the daughter of King Simonides (Kevin Gudahl).

Ben Carlson as Pericles. Photo by Liz Lauren.
It’s here that director David H. Bell seems to have the most fun. Post-tournament, the court of Pentapolis gathers for feasting and revelry, including a seemingly full-cast, choreographed scene that highlights the most joyous moment in Pericles’ life so far. (Nan Cibula-Jenkins’ occasionally overstated costume design—a multitude of overly matching patchwork vests and harem pants—is on full display here.)

In rapid succession, Pericles and Thaisa marry, Thaisa becomes pregnant, and the two board a ship back to Tyre so that Pericles can claim his rightful throne. But a storm—yet again—disrupts their plan. Thaisa gives birth on the tempest-tossed ship, but the hardship is too much and she dies, leaving a grief-stricken new husband and infant daughter. As is custom, Thaisa receives a burial at sea, and, unknown to Pericles, she washes ashore at Ephesus. Pericles, thinking his wife dead, leaves the baby, whom he heartbreakingly names Marina, with Cleon and Dionyza of Tarsus.

All this, and it’s only the end of the first act.

For the next 16 years, the broken family goes on as best they can: Pericles lives out a life of sorrow and becomes a hermit, the revived Thaisa devotes herself to the goddess Diana, and Marina (Cristina Panfilio) grows up under the suddenly jealous, cruel eye of Dionyza.

Most of Bell’s production moves along at a fast clip, despite such a meandering, top-heavy plot, but the play could still benefit from a little thoughtful editing.

The audience spends much of the second act fully aware of how the show is going to end, so a more succinct conclusion would be welcome here. The length is also due, more appreciatively, to fully realized performances by Carlson and Panfilio, and an unexpected yet surprisingly poignant musical number created by composer Henry Marsh.

So brevity be damned: These charming elements in CST’s production of Pericles help soften an otherwise problematic play, and while the show may not have a solidified place in Shakespeare’s modern canon, it sure deserves a spot on the Chicago theater-goer’s radar.

Periclesruns through Sunday, Jan. 18 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave., 312-595-5600 or online.