Pericles is one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays, not frequently performed, not even taught as much as his more popular plays. Written late in the Bard’s career, this romance (a mix of comic, tragic, and epic elements, with a happy ending) does present difficulties in staging that may explain its absence from most Shakespeare repertoires.
But this hasn’t daunted the Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble, an offshoot of Shakespeare Santa Monica, who have taken up the challenge of Pericles with a production very different from most Shakespeare mountings. After brief runs at venues in Northern California and Orange County, Pericles Redux is bound for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s biggest theatre festival. What director-adapter John Farmanesh-Bocca describes as a “bullet-train” version of the play has just completed a four-performance run here at the Miles Playhouse.
To summarize: Pericles, Prince of Tyre, attempts to win a princess by answering a riddle, only to discover that the king has tricked him into a situation where his life is forfeit no matter what answer he gives. He travels to other lands, makes friends and enemies, wins a bride, survives shipwrecks and storms, loses his wife and daughter, and almost succumbs to despair, until fate brings him everything he had thought to be lost.
Farmanesh-Bocca plays the title role, accompanied by seven other cast members who play multiple roles, changing into characters of many ages and genders via accessories, wigs, and a few costume touches. Three athletic males play the Fates and bring to life the expression “the hands of fate” as they literally handle the other actors, lifting, carrying, tumbling, tossing, jumping, and dancing. It’s like commedia dell’ arte, West Side Story, and WWE Smackdown rolled into one.
Much of it is funny. The tumbling and wrestling, as well as the sight of a skin-headed dude dressed as a wicked Queen, a king’s facial mugging, and the antics of some shady brothel proprietors, provoke audience laughter. But the poignant moments are there too, especially in the climactic scene that finds Pericles reunited with his daughter.
Farmanesh-Bocca has been doing Shakespeare since his teens and has directed productions for Shakespeare Santa Monica for five years. A former dancer, he conceived the concept of what he calls “kamikaze ballet” or physical theatre, and has taught classes in this art at New York University, UCLA, and at a conservatory in Northern California. The members of No Man Apart were selected from among his former students.
A “purist” about text, he trimmed down Pericles, while using the text as the starting point for all the action. His concept is to get the “essence” of the text and to use it to create the physical movements. He trains his actors to use their bodies to the maximum while being careful how they move, so as to not injure themselves.
Last year, Farmanesh-Bocca was commissioned to direct a production of a play about the last days of poet Sylvia Plath. His re-vamped multi-media version of this play won a First at the 2007 Fringe. As a result, he was invited back this year and decided to import Pericles Redux, which required a further streamlining of the show’s running time, since the Fringe requires plays to run no longer than 90 minutes.
“We already have great buzz,” Farmanesh-Bocca says. A critic from the Guardian has picked Pericles as one of “14 plays not to be missed at Fringe.” Because the play is an adaptation, it is not eligible for a First award, but may be up for awards in various other categories.
But regardless of what Fate has in store for Pericles, Farmanesh-Bocca is excited about performing what he terms of one Shakespeare’s “wonderful, altruistic stories that are timeless and open.” And when the company returns, he hopes to mount a full production here. “I would love it to come back to our home town,” he said.