Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Pericles, Pericles, Wherefore Art Thou?

One of the most adored icons of 20th century American literature is Auntie Mame, the glamorous free spirit who counseled that "Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!" Following the initial success of the 1955 novel by Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame was transformed into a wildly popular stage play (1956) and movie (1958) starring Rosalind Russell.

In 1966, when the story was adapted for the musical stage, songwriter Jerry Herman (who has had a lucky streak of writing popular anthems in his shows) wrote the following lyric for Angela Lansbury to sing to her young nephew:
"Open a new window, open a new door,
Travel a new highway, that's never been tried before;
Before you find you're a dull fellow, punching the same clock,
Walking the same tightrope as everyone on the block.
The fellow you want to be is three dimensional,
Soaking up life down to your toes,
Whenever they say you're slightly unconventional,
Just put your thumb up to your nose and show them how to
Dance to a new rhythm, whistle a new song,
Toast with a new vintage (the fizz doesn't fizz too long).
There's only one way to make the bubbles stay,
Simply travel a new highway, dance to a new rhythm,
Open a new window every day!"
While many people move to San Francisco for employment purposes, a great number come here for a second chance in life. Some see San Francisco as their last hope before taking a suicidal plunge off the Golden Gate Bridge. Others see it as a place where "frightening the horses" is the last thing they'll ever have to worry about. Why? In the wise words of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly:
"You can like the life you're living
You can live the life you like
You can even marry Harry, but mess around with Ike.
And that's good, isn't it grand? Isn't it great? Isn't it swell?
Isn't it fun?"
Whether one's desire to start anew is motivated by a desperate need to get out of a rut, find a viable substitute for the witness protection program, or embark on a long day's journey into light, very few people find that the path to reinvention is the shortest distance between two points. Whether your name is Odysseus or Belle Poitrine, random encounters with multiple lovers or an errant cyclops can become major distractions. The important part of embracing change is to take that first big step toward finding a new you.

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When I saw Kirk Shimano's hilarious short play, Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos, at the 2012 Best of Playground Festival, I was struck by the contrast between a lonely librarian's embrace of chaos theory and the cattiness of the high school students who, upon learning of her absence from school, assumed that she was dead. The fact that the high school students were being impersonated by adults added to the play's irony.  Here's a brief clip from Miss Finknagle Succumbs to Chaos as it was performed onstage.

Shimano's play was recently adapted for the screen by filmmaker Amy Harrison who, in the following Kickstarter appeal, explains what attracted her to the story of a middle-aged woman who suddenly started to make all her decisions based on the toss of a coin.

Part of the challenge in moving from stage to film was to retain a certain sense of whimsy and adventure so that Miss Finknagle's decisions (which start with taking her shoes off and end with her meeting a woman in a bar) take on the tone of a fantasy adventure. The addition of some comic-book style drawings helps to anchor the story in the heightened sense of drama in which many teenagers live their lives.

* * * * * * * * *
Sometimes there is a compelling need to find leave town and find a new identity. Whether a person has robbed a bank, killed someone, or simply broken up with a lover, the need to start all over again is unavoidable.

If you've guessed the answer to your King's riddle (which will supposedly allow you to marry his daughter) but grasp the horrifying reality -- that the King has an incestuous relationship with the girl and will kill you if you tell anyone -- then it's best to flee under cover of darkness. Like Romeo, like Pericles.

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting Mark Wing-Davey's "reinterpretation" of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, a 404-year-old play by William Shakespeare in a production designed by Peter Ksander and Douglas Stein with costumes by Meg Neville. Conceived with the help of Jim Calder, this Pericles is not a good match for academics or purists who are unwilling to let anyone play with Shakespeare's text. As Wing-Davey explains:
"Though I never feel compelled to set a play in the modern day, I'm interested in recontextualizing. I'm not interested in Shakespeare as an historical artifact, in the viewer attempting to look through the wrong end of the telescope at a play with its coats of yellowing varnish."
Pericles (James Barrow) discovers the secret sex life of
the daughter (Rami Margron) of King Antiochus in
Pericles, Prince of  Tyre (Photo by: Mellopix.com)

In addition to streamlining the text and eliminating the character of Cleon (Governor of Tarsus), Wing-Davey has his ensemble of eight actors mingling and chatting with the audience as they enter the theatre and take their seats. Music director Marc Gwinn teaches and then leads ticket holders in a three-part round before the show starts. With the audience loosened up -- and clear on the concept that a Shakespearean play will be performed with eight people stepping in and out of a wide variety of roles -- the storytelling can begin.

The only actor to remain constant throughout is David Barlow in the title role of Pericles, who must life Tyre flat away and embark on a voyage of self discovery to Tarsus, Pentapolis, and Mytilene. Along the way, he encounters Batman, a fierce storm at sea, a Middle Eastern pimp, and the goddess Diana.

Pericles (James Barrow) and a sailor (James Patrick Nelson)
endure a brutal storm at sea in Pericles, Prince of Tyre
(Photo by: Mellopix.com)

There are times when the production gets a little too gimmicky (I found myself thinking of the opening to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, where Prologus promises the audience that "We will employ every device we know in our desire to divert you"). For those who have endured and survived some truly heinous operatic productions created by Eurotrash stage directors, the shock value wore off a long time ago. Some of Wing-Davey's gimmicks work extremely well (the storm at sea is like watching a master class in highly-effective low-tech stagecraft) while others just become tiresome.

Evan Zes, Annapurna Sriram, and and Rami Margron in a
scene from Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Photo by: Mellopix)

After two hours, when the goddess Diana appears as a deux ex machina to reunite Pericles with his wife, Thaisa (who was presumed to have died while giving birth during a raging storm and was subsequently abandoned at sea aboard a piece of wood), one can almost feel the audience sigh with relief that closure is near at hand.

Pericles (David Barrow) is reunited with his daughter,
Marina (Annapurna Sriram) in Pericles, King of Tyre
(Photo by: Mellopix.com)

David Barlow was most impressive in the title role, with Anita Carey's performance as John Gower providing key moments of narration. Jessica Kitchens, Annapurna Sriram, and Rami Margron handled  the female roles while James Carpenter, James Patrick Nelson, and Evan Zes took on numerous male characters.

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