Photograph by Jenny Graham
Whatever doubts Twin Citians had about Guthrie artistic director Joe Haj’s ability to direct a play can be laid to rest now that his lovely, epic production of Pericles is up and running.
A Shakespearean debut has become almost mandatory for new Guthrie artistic directors (both Garland Wright and Joe Dowling opened their reigns with the Bard)—partly to demonstrate a mastery essential to the job, but mostly to honor the Guthrie’s history as a temple of classic storytelling. Haj’s Pericles accomplishes both of these goals, and offers a strong indication that the years to come under his guidance and stewardship are going to be interesting. Not “interesting” in the Minnesota sense of the word—as in weird, abnormal, or vaguely disturbing—but interesting in the sense that his artistic choices are likely to reveal layers and depths of thought that should command respect and, at the very least, careful consideration.
This quality in an artist director is important, because the public needs to trust Haj’s instincts and believe that he is not just programming plays that will fill seats. For the Guthrie to run successfully, people need to have confidence in Haj’s judgment, and feel that the plays the Guthrie is performing are either relevant to their lives and/or important to see for reasons that may not be apparent at first glance. And for people to have a genuine, sustained interest in what the Guthrie is doing, the work itself must reward the trust they place in Haj.
Pericles is an excellent first step.
As Shakespeare plays go, Pericles is an interesting choice because it doesn’t get performed often, even though in the Bard’s lifetime it was one of his most popular plays. It fell out of favor for reasons that are too convoluted and academically boring to recount. Academics love to chew on questions that can never be definitively answered, and the basic classroom controversy surrounding Pericles is over whether or not Shakespeare wrote the whole thing. The academic consensus is that he didn’t—that the first half of the play was cobbled together by a lesser talent, and that Shakespeare rode in on his white pen and saved the play with an eminently worthy second half.
Joseph Haj thinks this is nonsense. He proudly embraces the minority opinion that Shakespeare wrote all of Pericles, and he has doubled down on that opinion publicly by declaring that Pericles is one of Shakespeare’s best, most mature plays—an opinion almost no one shares.
Haj isn’t just an academic, though, he’s a dramatist. And his argument for Shakespeare’s authorship isn’t an essay in an academic journal, it’s an actual production of the play that attempts to—and largely succeeds in—marrying the odd and sometimes disjointed elements of Pericles into a unified, cohesive whole.
It’s not hard to see why people are skeptical about the first half of Pericles. After our hero flees his home country in fear for his life, the play skips along rather briskly through space and time while Pericles (played by Wayne T. Carr) travels around, has various adventures, picks up a wife, gets her pregnant, and accidentally become king of the country he left.
The knock on the play’s first half is that the plot bounces around like a ping pong ball and rather artlessly sets up the action in the second half. Haj’s argument is that, on the contrary, the structure of the first half mimics the trials and tribulations of youth, when one’s personal compass (symbolized by various compasses, large and small) is somewhat unreliable. This is a time of life, the play suggests, when people do things for strange reasons and often make hasty decisions—like tossing their wives into the sea before they’re actually dead.
If you think of the first section as a comic travelogue, as Haj does, it makes a perfect kind of sense. Haj anchors the story firmly in oral and folk traditions, where people often skip through the boring parts to keep the story moving. Incidentally, these qualities are also why the play was so popular in its time. The plot is easy to follow, there is very little speechifying, and there are a lot of jokes.
Haj has particular fun with Pericles’s time in Pentapolis, where our hero washes ashore after one of many shipwrecks at sea. To Pericles, Pentapolis’s King Simonides (played by Jeffrey B. Cornell) runs his country like a hippie commune. The king himself looks like he walked out of the cast of Hair, and the whole summer-of-love motif beautifully frames Pericles’ budding romance with the king’s daughter, Thaisa (played by Brooke Parks).
As a director, Haj has a reputation for spectacle, and he indulges that inclination in the play’s two shipwrecks, which symbolize the fact that bad things sometimes happen in life, and you just have to deal with them. The first shipwreck features an exquisite bit of old-school stagecraft, with the roiling sea created by a stage covered in billowing blue silk. The effect is both beautiful and effective. But the second shipwreck is the real stunner.
Behind the stage is a giant curved screen, onto which all kinds of things are projected: stars, graphics, colors, textures, etc. But when the second shipwreck arrives, with flashing strobes and cracks of thunder, that screen is suddenly filled with an angry sea that swells and pitches, creating the illusion that it is coming right at you. For minutes, this tempestuous sea towers above the stage, a literal wall of water, immersing the audience in a truly spectacular moment of terror. The scene is also, incidentally, a brilliant use of modern technology in the service of an old story.
The second half of the play—the part attributed to Shakespeare—is as gorgeous and funny and emotionally rewarding as you’d expect from the greatest playwright in history. And, since the cast has been performing it since last summer, when it was a hit at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the show is a finely-tuned machine at this point. Michael Hume is hilarious as the drag-queen brothel madame Bawd, and Jennie Greenberry’s portrayal of the Pericles’s grown-up daughter Marina lends the entire second act a poignant level of maturity and depth. The celebrated climax of the play—the reuniting of Pericles with his daughter and wife—is both marvelous and moving, even though it’s the least-surprising reunion in theatrical history. And, as promised, Haj ties it all together with beautiful bow in the final scene, where fate, fortune, and humanity all stand together side by side, mere specks in the mystery of the cosmos.
If Pericles is level of theater we can expect during Haj’s tenure as artistic director, the good ship Guthrie is in excellent hands.
Pericles continues at the Guthrie Theater through Feb. 21, 2016.