Playwright: William Shakespeare. At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets: 312-595-5600 or www.chicagoshakes.com; $48-$78. Runs through Jan. 18
Modern audiences might find Pericles very hard to swallow. William Shakespeare's romantic drama set on and around the Mediterranean Sea during antiquity is filled with plot twists involving a Lazarus-like resurrection, thwarted seductions and coincidental reunions of long-lost family members.
But when you compare what happens in this Shakespearean drama to events in the Star Wars films, then it becomes very clear that Pericles is what would have been sci-fi and fantasy for Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences in the same way that outer space captures the imagination of audiences today. So you view Pericles in this context, it's a much more exciting and meaningful ride.
And even though Pericles is structurally seen as one of Shakespeare's lesser works, its relative unpopularity through the centuries could also do with the fact that its plot prominently touches upon incest and prostitutiontopics that would have upset audiences with prudish Victorian values.
Pericles at Chicago Shakespeare Theater certainly commands attention thanks to director David H. Bell's fast-moving and energetic production that is also infused with an epic sheen of adventure. Bell's production incorporates high-tech elements like the digital projections designs of crashing waves by Aaaron Rhyne and the atmospheric lighting design work of Jesse Klug. But it also highlights the ancient traditions of storytelling via its very talented and versatile acting ensemble, many of whom assume narrating duties on top of playing multiple roles.
Pericles is anchored around actor Ben Carlson as the title Prince of Tyre, who starts out as a brave adventurer only to face heart-wrenching family separations with his wife, Thaisa ( Lisa Berry ), and his daughter, Marina ( Cristina Panfilio ). Carlson provides a strong moral backbone for the rest of the large company to circle around, with actors like Sean Fortunato, Ora Jones, Ross Lehman, Kevin Gudahl and many more taking on memorable cameo roles ranging from royalty to lowly peasants in a variety of fantastical costumes by designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins.
Bell also incorporates some very memorable fight choreography and celebratory acrobatic dancing punctuated with great rhythmic percussion music performed by ensemble members Dan Toot and Jed Feder. This is all played out atop the overturned ship of a stage floor designed by set designer Scott Davis that rightfully hints at the various shipwrecks and other seafaring journeys contained within the play.
So even though Pericles may not have the respect of other late Shakespeare works like The Tempest or The Winter's Tale, it does have the power to be an entrancing family drama filled with magic and adventure when done right. Bell's Pericles for Chicago Shakespeare Theater makes an extremely strong case for the play, and you would be hard-pressed to see such a swashbuckling and entertaining production of this rarity anytime soon.