Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Pericles and Macbeth: Actors and Character

Pericles's wife dies in childbirth (or does she???)

On Friday, December 4, I saw the Justin Kurzel film of Macbeth, one of Shakespeare's most popular tragedies. On Saturday, December 12, I saw the Joseph Haj stage play of Pericles, one of Shakespeare's most unknown works to modern audiences (and probably containing early scenes added by another author). Both are visually beautiful, but they also both highlight in contrasting ways the importance of heart and character when turning words into performance.

The new Macbeth film has breathtaking cinematography of a wild, foggy, muddy, bitterly cold Scotland that will make you want to huddle under a blanket. It's a beautiful and bleak stage for the story. But while it makes sense to have the setting be relentlessly grim, the tone and performances are similarly unchanging.

Hey, lil mama lemme whisper in ya ear.

Let's start with an addition that a few reviews have mentioned: the movie starts with a silent scene of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at the funeral of their toddler daughter. The loss of a child is obliquely alluded to in the text of Macbeth, and the Macbeths-as-grieving-parents angle adds some weight to later scenes (Macbeth's pain as Banquo greets his own son, Lady Macbeth's regret as Macduff's children are killed).

But I think showing the Macbeths as deadened by grief was also a hindrance - we see almost nothing of how they "are" as a couple. In his letter to his wife telling her of the Weird Sisters' prophecy, Macbeth calls her his "dearest partner of greatness," no small thing given the gender roles of the time, but when they are reunited, we see almost no connection between them. There are so many ways actors can portray this marriage: co-dependent, love-hate, emotionally abusive, passionate, etc. It can be a marriage of convenience or the union of two devious soul mates. But there's a flatness to the performances here. I mean, just to put it all out there: there is a scene where Michael Fassbender fingerbangs Marion Cotillard while discussing murder, and it is boring.

The staging is also confusing and the monologues are cut up in a mix of performance and narration in an experiment that doesn't quite pay off.

Despite her famous obsession, Mr. Macbeth is clearly the one with dirty hands.

Now to leap to a production that seems the opposite of this in every way: Joseph Haj's Pericles.

This production was part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2015 season. I've gone to Ashland the two years previous to this, but didn't this year. But the news that someone, somehow had made Pericles good trickled through Shakespeare media, and I had a pang of regret every time I saw a glowing review. So when I saw that the play's success meant it got a run at the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC, I had to take that second chance.

If you've never heard of Pericles, you're in good company. It's, well... It's silly and a little weird. This is a play where the opening includes a horrifying incestuous abuse revelation, where deus ex machina comes in the form of cartoonish pirates, and where a girl sold into sexual slavery is so good at preaching that her would-be johns dutifully run off to church instead. It is as far from Macbeth's gravitas as you can get.

Haj and his OSF cast embrace the silliness with open eyes but without derision. There's music and dancing. The narrator, John Gower (a contemporary of Chaucer and the author of the source material), is brought to life by a folksy, amiable Armando Duran, and with his charm and Haj's direction the pirate scene becomes a moment celebrating the fun of storytelling.

The entire cast bring this passion and energy to their performances. Characters who were lightly sketched in the text become people we care about on stage. Wayne T. Carr is compelling as brave, sensible, and caring Pericles, whose fortunes change drastically throughout the play. Brooke Parks is supremely lovable as Pericles' wife Thaisa and unrecognizably ice-cold as evil queen Dionyza. Jennie Greenberry and Michael Gabriel Goodfriend make their characters' sudden engagement believable. The supporting cast fill their multiple roles well, especially Cedric Lamar, Scott Ripley, Michael J. Hume, Barzin Akhavan, and U. Jonathan Toppo.

As texts, Pericles might not have the depth or skilled composition that Macbeth has, but this lovely production offers its audience humanity and joy. It runs through December 20 at the Folger Theatre in DC, and will run January 16 - February 21 at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

A happy moment before tragedy in Pericles

Side note: the Stratford Festival in Canada also had a well received Pericles this year, as Shakespeare cartoonist Mya Gosling reports. The popularity of individual Shakespeare plays tend to wax and wane through the years/decades/centuries...maybe Pericles is having a resurgence? I vote for King John to be next!

Image info:
Pericles production photos by Teresa Wood from Folger Shakespeare Library
Macbeth photos from the official Facebook page

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