© 2024 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
Listen | Discover | Engage a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of stations.

"Pericles" At OSF: A Magnificent Journey

Jenny Graham
Pericles (Wayne T. Carr, left) washes ashore from a shipwreck and is met by a group of fishermen (Michael J. Hume, U. Jonathan Toppo, Cedric Lamar).

Shakespeare’s Pericles bears the stamp of its source, a series of medieval romances by the poet John Gower. Like the typical romance, Pericles dismisses realism in favor of the magic of legend as it follows a youthful prince embarking on a journey to maturity.  In the process of discovering his own identity, he will save the world from a destructive force threatening its vitality and be rewarded with a fertile marriage.   

But this mythic structure--what Joseph Campbell calls “the hero’s journey”—gives way before the abundance of Pericles.  The play defies classification; its episodic content disrupts the safety and reassurance of form.  Joseph Haj’s excellent production, onstage in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Thomas Theatre, rides an intriguing paradox:  it marshalls a wealth of theatrical elements into a spell-binding story that bursts the conventions of story wide open. 

The first two acts explore familiar territory. Pericles arrives in Antioch, intent on winning the hand of a beautiful princess by solving a riddle that has stumped his predecessors.  Hero-in-training that he is, Pericles grasps the answer instantly:  King Antiochus and his daughter are committing incest, and he, Pericles, would be killed if he spoke that truth.  Pursued by the King’s hit man, Pericles sails to Tarsus, a city suffering terrible famine, and revives this wasteland with a cargo of corn.  Sailing on, his ship is wrecked in a tempest, and he’s cast ashore at Pentapolis, ruled this time by a good king, Simonides. There he participates in a second contest for a princess, Thaisa, and wins her heart. 

In Act III, the heroic arc of the play begins to go haywire.  Antiochus is dead, so Pericles heads home with the pregnant Thaisa—right into a second tempest.  In the midst of its violence, Thaisa dies giving birth to the infant Marina, and her body is thrown overboard in a casket. Bereft, Pericles leaves his child in Tarsus to be raised—its rulers do owe him a favor, after all.  The action then fast-forwards fourteen years to track Marina, whose loveliness has moved the jealous queen to plot her murder.  Marina is “saved” from death by a sudden assault by pirates, then shipped to Mytilene and sold into a brothel.  Tapping her own heroic power, she manages to convert her clients to chastity, including the governor himself.  Meanwhile, Pericles is told of Marina’s death, and even more bereft, he cuts his ship adrift on the sea.  Several miracles later, three poignant moments of recognition and reunion close the play.       

A powerful ensemble of actors, most taking multiple roles, ground these fantastic events in highly specific characters.  The superb Wayne T. Carr nails three variations on Pericles—the ingenuous youth, the weary adult, and the old man resigned to anguish.  Scott Ripley morphs brilliantly from the severe and toxic Antiochus to his antithesis—the kindly, professorial Simonides, who recognizes Pericles’s essential goodness as quickly as Pericles guessed Antiochus’s viciousness.  Following the day’s contests, this good king urges his daughter Thaisa (the endearing Brooke Parks—a minute ago, the narcissistic queen of Tarsus) to engage Pericles in delectably awkward conversation.  Then Pericles’s reluctance to dance inspires a poignant bit of business--Simonides coaches the young man through a few steps on the sidelines—which adds a special sweetness to his praising the bumbling Pericles as “music’s master.”

Double-casting throws ironic light on the brothel scenes, where Jennie Greenberry, once the incestuous, anonymous, robotic daughter of Antiochus, becomes the pure but feisty Marina.  Michael Hume shuttles between the upright Helicanus, pillar of Tyre, and the Bawd in padded bustier, tottering around in platform heels, while Ripley is reincarnated as his or her stoner husband.  

Speaking of reincarnation, this unique play is held together by the emergence “from ashes” of Shakespeare’s “ancient” source Gower, who is handed the task of narrator.  He introduces each new phase of the action, smoothing out the jolts in time and space.  Played by Armando Duran with an equanimity both comforting and eerie, Gower seems oblivious to the grim details of his story—he introduces contaminated Antioch, ringed with severed heads, then asks us to “banish fleeting worry”; similarly, he commends to our content the scene of Marina’s near murder 

He is also indifferent to suspense, repeatedly revealing the outcomes of scenes before we witness them.  He moves us from the genre of romance into the lighter comedy of requited love then into the dark satire of the brothel, never wavering from his kindly, even tone.  For Gower is a spirit, above it all, speaking from the same larger perspective evoked by the Jan Chambers’s spare, elemental set, and the flow of Francesca Talenti’s projections, in which swirling stars and galaxies alternate with a turbulent sea. From this perspective beyond time and space, tempests spell both death and birth, and the vicissitudes of one individual’s journey are mere blips on the cosmic screen. 

Gower’s function expands over the course of the play from travel guide to teacher and also healer.  His story will be “restorative” if we follow his directions to open our creative imaginations and empathize with the fear and joy and suffering we witness.  In other words, the real journey of the play is our own. 

This late play takes us to a place where tidy stories with their happy, conventional endings melt away. Life is as changeable and ruthlessly chaotic as the sea.  Bad things happen to good people, and the only viable response is patience, a surrender of the self, and a detachment from outcomes.  Pericles finds his heart’s desire after he gives up on it, suspended several feet off the earth, and tuned to the music of the spheres.  

In an episode of sanity, Molly Tinsley decided twenty years of teaching literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy was enough. She resigned from the faculty, moved west, and now writes full-time in Ashland and Portland. She crafts the Theatre and the Arts column for the Jefferson Journal magazine.