Usually when we see Shakespeare, we have some idea what to expect. Because of my past life as a theatre person, I rarely see an unfamiliar Shakespeare play in production. Either we’ve already seen a particular play (often multiple productions of it, in fact), or I’ve at least read it. However, Pericles, Prince of Tyre is one of those plays you almost never see in production for several reasons. First, it’s not considered one of Shakespeare’s best. Also, most people believe Shakespeare was not the sole author. A skeezy guy named George Wilkins is often credited with the first 9 scenes and Shakespeare with the last 13 or 14. Whenever I studied Shakespeare, it was one of those plays everyone turned up their nose at, so I never even read it.
Because we didn’t know quite what we’d let ourselves in for, and because we were there early enough, we decided to take advantage of one of the great features of Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier, the preamble. About an hour before many of the matinee performances, you can hear a lecture about the play you’re about to see; Stephen Bennett from Roosevelt University was the lecturer we heard, and he was excellent.
A good preamble helps place the play in context within Shakespeare’s canon, and the presenting scholar will also talk about the director’s production choices. The director, David Bell, who has a resumé as long as your arm, has wanted to direct Pericles practically forever. Bennett sketched out some of the liberties Bell took with the script. The main change was doing away with the John Gower character, who was a historic figure (poet and a buddy of Chaucer’s) but not someone most modern audience members would have a clue about. Gower’s speeches were split among various members of the ensemble. For my money, Bell’s adaptation worked beautifully.
Like other Shakespeare “problem plays”, notably my favorite, The Winter’s Tale, there are plot holes you could drive a truck through. That kind of thing doesn’t bother me the way it does many theatregoers. It gave me the opportunity to wisecrack, Mystery Science Theater style. My favorite comments (delivered to Cookie, sotto voce) included: “Kidnapped by pirates is good.” and “She’s only mostly dead.”
Also, I think it would be an interesting experiment to take one of these less-loved Shakespeare plays and try to reimagine it in novel form, maybe explaining the plot holes. I’m mulling the idea over for an upcoming project.
Anyway, if you live in the Chicago area and this post has piqued your interest, Pericles is still at Navy Pier until January 18, 2015.