‘Pericles Wet’: a tale for tough times

Portland Shakespeare Project's premiere of Ellen Margolis's adaptation of "Pericles" takes a rough-and-tumble journey through a perilous world

By JOHN LONGENBAUGH

Shakespeare’s plays spin in and out of social relevance. At times of war and upheaval, the histories and political dramas like Coriolanus and Julius Caesar call to us, while the ritualistic restoration of order in the comedies is best suited to relatively calm times. So what plays are best suited to an age where the sociopolitical reality, not to put too fine a point on it, is a god-awful mess?

Ellen Margolis

I might nominate Pericles for the honor, and in particular an adaptation entitled Pericles Wet by Portland playwright Ellen Margolis. “I think Pericles  might be starting to have its moment,” she says. And though her adaptation began two years ago as a Proscenium Live! project, in our moment of feckless leaders, sexual malfeasance and the “Me, Too,” movement, it’s hard to disagree.

Like our times, the text of the original Pericles is a mess. It was unpublished in the First Folio and only available in a later Quarto edition, and scholars aren’t even sure if the play is Shakespeare’s at all, though the consensus is that somewhere between half and a third of the play is his, with the most likely collaborator an innkeeper and middling playwright named George Wilkins. What’s more, the text is filled with errors, signs of a sloppy printing, and most likely a text re-created from the failing memories of original actors, not an actual script. To create a stageable Pericles directors often cut and reassemble the Quarto text, drawing liberally from a prose version of the same story published by Wilkins after the play’s success.

Shannon Mastel, Ben Newman, and Murri Lazaroff-Babin in the premiere of “Pericles Wet.” Photo: David Kinder

Given all these contributors to a faulty manuscript, Margolis is in good company in using the extant text for her own interpretation. “When working with the original play, I felt less like an adaptor and more like a collaborator,” she says. “But after I’d splashed around in Pericles for a few weeks I moved on to writing my own play.”

Pericles Wet is certainly its own play, less an adaptation and more a brisk (90 minutes) but intense interrogation of the source material. In the first act of Shakespeare’s play, the noble young hero Pericles meets King Antiochus, who in classic fairy-tale fashion offers the hand of his daughter to any suitor who can solve his riddle, and a beheading to any who can’t. The riddle’s answer, however, is no fairy tale: Antiochus is sleeping with his daughter, and when Pericles realizes this, he flees the kingdom, setting off various travels and adventures that ultimately include a marriage to another princess, the birth of their daughter, Marina, and the apparent death of both wife and daughter, before a final miraculous restoration of the family. These themes—a virtuous hero, the loss of wife or child, a seemingly impossible happy ending—are Shakespeare’s obsessions through all of his late-life romances.

Andrea White in “Pericles Wet.” Photo: David Kinder

But the beginning is what stuck with Margolis. “I felt like I had some unfinished business with Pericles. I love the play and have enjoyed it in performance, but the questions of that first act always stayed with me, and I found myself asking “we’re going to go back to that other thing, right?”  So in her play, she does.

The daughter of Antiochus, here named Hesperides, is given voice, life, and a greatly expanded dramatic arc in Margolis’ adaptation. Abandoned by the one suitor who could have saved her, she curses Pericles so that, like Odysseus’, his journeys across water bring only tribulations—and his ultimate salvation can come only by returning to her and facing his failure to help.

This is dark, dark stuff. A serious look at incest threatens to overweigh Pericles’ tragicomic form, as well as taint a story featuring multiple sets of fathers and daughters—including the hero. “We’re always going to look at those relationships, father and daughter, as potentially radioactive,” Margolis explains. “There are several moments when Pericles is asked if he wants to hold a baby or child, and before he bonds with his daughter he’s always repelled by the idea.” Even more disturbing, in her version the daughter, Marina, abandoned to a brothel, spins an incestual fantasy for a client—and as this suggests, the paths that this new play opens are often more disturbing than their inspiration.

Shannon Mastel and Ben Newman. Photo: David Kinder

To balance this and to stay true to its inspiration, Pericles Wet also features scenes and characters of broad farce and comedy. On his first voyage aboard a ship, Pericles falls into a nauseous fever dream where mirages of aquatic myths such as Captain Ahab, Popeye, and Spongebob Square Pants rise up. Comic asides from the characters (particularly an epically droll delivery from Andrea White as Dionyza, the Queen of a famine-wrecked country) remind us that the original play is often even more ridiculous than what we’re watching. Murri Lazarroff-Babin’s stiff-limbed sailor needs only a parrot to complete his pantomime pirate performance, and David Bodin, a repulsively bombastic Antiochus, is also a hilariously laid-back King Simon. The result is true tragicomedy, often jarring, with both comedy and drama so intertwined that it’s hard to know if the final effect is grimly hilarious or irreverently traumatic.

Both Pericles and the play it’s inspired are often untethered to time, place, and character, sometimes leading to narrative confusion. This includes in Margolis’ adaptation a flash-forward late in the play involving Marina that leads to a confusing few minutes, where some brief exposition or incident would have smoothed things considerably.

But even this seems oddly at home with the material. Can you adapt a work whose value is its roughness, a convoluted narrative mixing drama and comedy, destructive sex and gentle love, without allowing some of that into your own creation? If the goal of an adaptation like this isn’t to “fix” Shakespeare’s play, but to wrestle, interrogate and confront it, Margolis has impressively succeeded—greatly aided by Michael Mendelson’s compassionate direction. “You know, there’s more heart in some of the scenes than I’d realized,” the playwright says. “What I’d thought were simple negotiations were really heartfelt on stage. I think it comes from Michael’s empathy as an actor. There are times I felt that these characters are more vulnerable, or more multi-faceted, than I had realized.”

Andrea White, Samson Syharath, Murri Lazaroff-Babin: That’s a wrap. Photo: David Kinder

The production is spare. Five hanging curtains are the set; props and costumes are minimal, though cleverly evocative of Near East culture and fairy tales. Sound effects are all created live onstage by the actors, who also switch characters fluidly with minimal costume changes. When you consider the sheer amount of detailed physical theater involved in this production, this all could have floundered, particularly given the intense rush of a short rehearsal cycle. But the cast has impressive cohesion and a praiseworthy eye for detailed movement.

We live in a time of reckonings, where we must face as a society many ugly truths about our lives. So I was surprised to find this show as cathartic as I did—both comedy and drama landed with equal and effective force. On the ride home, my companion offered her reaction: “I’m just glad to see a show about a good man who tries to do right.” In messy times like these, maybe a hero like Pericles is the one we need.

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Portland Shakespeare Project’s premiere of Ellen Margolis’s Pericles Wet contunues through Dec. 17 on the Alder Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

One Response. Have your say.

  1. Lynne Duddy says:

    Thank you for the very insightful review, John Longenbaugh. Facing the ugly truths of our lives is critical to healing… to deny the face of the sun doesn’t escape its blister.

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