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Play's the Stink

David Alexander

Pan Cultural Experience: Shakespeare Santa Cruz's Wilson D. Michaels and Coco Medvitz can't save "Pericles," running through Aug. 31 at the Festival Glen.

Cosmetic surgery nearly saves one of Willy's worst

By Troy Patterson

POPE called it "wretched." Ben Jonson called it "mouldy." Dryden considered Pericles a "ridiculous and incoherent story." It is. Imagine The Winter's Tale as a made-for-TV movie. Set in six locales over a period of 15 years, Pericles is a clumsy, baffling work, cluttered with characters too underdeveloped to elicit any feeling other than frustration. That's why it's so rarely on college syllabi, that's why Kenneth Branagh won't be making a movie of it, and that's why Shakespeare Santa Cruz is only first presenting it this summer.

SSC director Christopher Grabowski responds to the challenge by giving the play a decidedly postmodern spin. Gower, the one-man-chorus needed to guide us through this rambling mess, appears as the stereotypical kindly hobo. When young prince Pericles discovers that neighbor King Antiochus has been buggering his own daughter, the daughter is a foxy femme fatale in flowing gowns and swooping ponytail. Later, on the run from Antiochus and shipwrecked in Pentapolis, Pericles enters a tournament in which the knights romp about the redwoods in Day-Glo togas. A brothel madam is a bee-hived chain-smoker with an outer-borough accent. Throughout, lighting designer Kevin Adams and costume designer Todd Roehrman provide slick, Technicolor visuals. It's a lot of fun.

Grabowski further attempts to spice up the play by translating portions of the dialog into song. The singing is first-rate and the band highly versatile, but how sour sweet music is when no proportion kept! Even the Shakespeare plays that include songs don't exactly come off as musicals. This experience, however, provoked nasty flashbacks to Starlight Express. Nevertheless, the introduction of such set pieces into an already fragmentary narrative does--paradoxically--create the illusion of unity.

The cast is led by Wilson D. Michaels, whose Pericles stays intensely haunted by fate from beginning to end. But whatever Michaels offers in intensity, he lacks in subtlety. One gets the idea his voice would tremble with rage if he broke a shoelace. Moreover, Michaels' classical approach to the play is at odds with that of the bulk of the cast, who plays it for kitsch comedy.

For instance, when Pericles and his daughter Marina (Jennifer Morris) are reunited near the end, they conduct themselves like Lear and Cordelia, even though the rest of the company has spent the previous four acts capering about like cartoon characters. We wonder when things went wrong.

Things went wrong around 1608 when Shakespeare--or, as some scholars suggest, he and two hacks--contrived the play. Grabowski and his cast do a valiant, Disney-worthy job of negotiating the structural difficulties that Pericles presents, but not even the grandest showmanship can disguise the play's inherent vacancy.

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From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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