'Pericles' review — royals and pirates and songs, oh my

Read our review of Pericles off Broadway, a revival of the Shakespeare classic presented by Fiasco Theater at Classic Stage Company through March 24.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

In Fiasco Theater’s spirited take on Shakespeare’s Pericles at Classic Stage Company, there’s more than one Pericles. The beleaguered prince is played by four actors (Paco Tolson, Noah Brody, Tatiana Wechsler, and Devin E. Haqq) who all assume other roles. Each successor to the title character slips into it with a dab of theatricality, but not much ado.

Initially a head-scratcher, the relay-race casting concept eventually sinks in. Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, weathers various challenges and storms – natural and emotional – and emerges from each ordeal a changed person. If the text (which splices in bits from English dramatist George Wilkins’s novel about Pericles) doesn’t do a great job of explaining that, director Ben Steinfeld’s approach drives it home.

Innovative storytelling is a Fiasco hallmark, but as plays go, Pericles isn’t exactly top-shelf Shakespeare. It’s a bit of a hash. The plot skitters from Antioch to Pentapolis to Tarsus and beyond on a bare gray floor reserved for a few boxy seats and a – foreshadowing alert! – casket.

At the start, clever Pericles decodes a riddle to win the hand of the daughter of King Antiochus (Brody). There’s a catch: revealing the solution would expose the monarch’s incestuous secret. Heeding advice from Helicanus (Paul L. Coffey), Pericles scrams, hoping to leave the tumult in his rearview.

No such luck. Troubles trail Pericles throughout his odyssey, especially when it comes to women. He marries Thaisa (Jessie Austrian), the daughter of King Simonides (Andy Grotelueschen), only to lose her when she apparently dies at sea giving birth to their daughter.

For safety’s sake, Pericles leaves the infant, Marina, with foster parents Cleon (Haqq) and Dionyza (Wechsler). They end up plotting a grown-up Marina's (Emily Young) death. What could come next? Plenty. There are encounters with pirates, brothel residents, a kind ruler Lysimachus (Tolson), and a life-reviving physician before Pericles finally gets a happy break.

Since bursting on the scene over a dozen years ago with Cymbeline, another messy Shakespeare work, Fiasco has become known for stripped-down productions of classic and contemporary works. A fabric wall, cream-colored like the costumes, provides a backdrop for Pericles, and Gower (Steinfeld), a balladeer who periodically chimes in, urges us to use our imagination to “give this story breath.”

Pericles courses along, always accessible, but it seldom leaps off the stage into something that enchants. An angry sea that sweeps up Pericles arrives on stage as an enormous rippling bolt of blue fabric. It’s an effective, but familiar, trick.

In the end, there are laughs, bursts of song, and a sweet family reunion. While it takes a bit of divine summoning for things to work out for Pericles, fine-tuned ensemble acting gets the job done for Fiasco.

Pericles is at Classic Stage Company through March 24. Get Pericles tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: The company of Fiasco Theater's Pericles at Classic Stage Company. (Photo by Austin Ruffer)

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