Incest, attempted murder, attempted rape, and a family desperately seeking out a better life only to be torn apart during a storm at sea that leads to a decade-plus-long separation. It sounds like a summary of some Facebook news feeds but no, this is William Shakespeare and George Wilkins’ Pericles… and in the capable hands of Independent Shakespeare Co.’s co-founder and Artistic Director Melissa Chalsma, it is a solidly funny good time.
From the moment the character [John] Gower, (The Presenter, played by Hao Feng) appears the cast is present on stage and there are few scenes until we reach the near-end where they are not all utilized. The physicality of the play, therefore, is key and Chalsma infuses the play with the energy that makes the heaviest of subject matters feel light as air. In particular, Gyasi Silas’ Pericles is a figure whose every loss and every gain infuses every cell of his body and the movement and gestures that each of the actors employs throughout brings a world to life in ways we don’t always get to see. In addition to his work, the cult of Diana has its own set of gestures to enact along with their prayers, within the first few scenes you will witness the best use of steamer trunks possibly ever and there are many moments where you can easily ‘turn the sound down’ and immediately understand what is going on, who has the power and what is at stake.
Antiochus (Xavi Moreno, who also plays Philomen) is willing to wed his daughter (Bukula Ogunmola, who also plays Lychordia and the goddess Diana) to any man who can solve his riddle but when Pericles succeeds and discovers it is essentially an admission of Antiochus’ incestuous relationship, the latter orders his man Thaliard (Kelvin Morales, who also plays Cerimon) to poison Pericles. Pericles returns to his home of Tyre but realizes he must flee so he travels first to Tarsus then to Pentapolis where he wins over Simonides (played by William Elsman, who also plays Leonine) and the heart of his daughter Thaisa (Aisha Kabia). Pericles competes with others in a comical three-legged race of a joust that includes volunteers from the audience (Lady Chelsea and Sir Nick, at the performance I attended). Pericles wins the day and dances with Thaisa to “Only You” by The Platters complete with romantic ‘almost’ kiss.
As one might imagine, things do not go smoothly for the couple. They get pregnant and have their daughter Marina (Carene Rose Mekertichyan) at sea but Thaisa is taken for dead after the birth, placed in a coffin and sent overboard per the wishes of the Sailors on board. Marina is left with Cleon and Dionyza, a couple overseeing a population that owes Pericles since he is the only one who was able to ease their hunger, but the moment Marina starts to outshine their own daughter, Dionyza sells her off to a brothel. As Cleon, David Melville once again makes Shakespeare look and sound easy with his ability to distill characters down to clear yet still complex traits. As his scheming wife Dionyza and also as Bawd, the woman in charge of the brothel where Pericles’ daughter Marina, unfortunately, finds herself, Sabra Williams draws fine distinctions between these two women who are strong-willed and none too shy to express their opinion and see their orders carried out. Strong as she is, Marina’s innocence and desire to remain pure is stronger and she starts sending the customers who come her way off with thoughts and plans as chaste as hers. Thaisa’s coffin comes ashore at Ephesus where she is welcomed as a servant in Diana’s temple. Marina’s ability to change any man’s nature with her words ends up leading her to her distraught father Pericles, who languishes in sorrow, certain he’s lost both wife and child but when her identity is revealed and he receives a vision from Diana telling him to travel to Ephesus, the family is reunited and all is ultimately well.
The production does not strictly adhere to the script, affording for ad-libs and moments of audience interaction that are lovely and clearly draw the viewers into the action of the play. Even though we spend a long time watching Marina try to fend off Pandar (Lorenzo Gonzalez, who also plays Hellcanus) and Bawd’s servant Boult (Patrick Batiste) while trying to preserve her chastity and some time watching many less than kind or savory characters struggling to achieve just as disreputable a goal, when Pericles, Marina, and Thaisa were reunited on that state in Griffith Park, the audience burst into applause and cheers of joy. When Pericles and his long lost wife kissed, the crowd uttered ‘Aw’ in unison, as if on cue. Chalsma had us in the palm of her hand. That’s a powerful testament to the work Independent Shakespeare Co. is doing here in Los Angeles, and it’s a lovely accomplishment to witness. Don’t be afraid of the subject matter, the play is a delight (for children of all ages).
Brent Charles plays Lysimachus and the Entire Ensemble portray Lords, Ladies, Guards, Messengers, Knights, Pirates, Sailors, Gentlefolk and Temple Keepers. Tom Blunt and Milissa Chalsma are the Costume and Prop Designers (both are wonderful but the costumes, in particular, are excellent). The Scenic Design by Caitlin Lainoff is once again a notable feat with Lighting Design by Bosco Flanagan that compliments it nicely. On either side of the stage affixed to the prettiest scaffolding you might ever see hang two chalkboards with the list of locations where the play takes place presented in order and as time goes by and characters move from place to place, cast members climb ladders affixed nearby to take up a piece of chalk and cross the names out. Before the sun sets, birds chirp in the trees surrounding the hillside and once the sun goes down, they are replaced by the sound of crickets and both add volumes to the experience. The Old Zoo is off the beaten path and clear of the normal foot traffic, which makes it even easier to lose yourself in the play. Sound Design is by Jamir Muñoz and David Beukers is the composer. Nikhil Pai is the Voice & Text Coach. Giselle Vega is the Stage Manager. Jenny Park is the Assistant Stage Manager and Allison Muhlheim is the Assistant Stage Manager Intern.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.