A Pericles to Ponder

The good news from the 21st summer season of the Houston Shakespeare Festival -- featuring Pericles and As You Like It -- is that Pericles is mounted with such aesthetic vitality that it's a revelation. It's not that Like is unlikable; it's just that Pericles director Carolyn Houston Boone uses every type of theatrical witchcraft that you can think of -- and, even better, some that you can't -- to cast a spell over one of Shakespeare's thorniest texts, making it astonishingly bewitching. Pericles is almost too good to be offered, as both it and As You Like It are, for free.

The tale of a Greek noble who flees his home after discovering his ruler has committed incest, but who is, after a series of travails, reunited with his family, Pericles is rarely seen; indeed, this production is its Houston premiere. Shrewdly, Boone begins the plot-driven play in medias res; the cast ritualistically moves with, over and underneath a huge white tapestry, forecasting the turbulence Pericles is about to encounter. A red banner is dashed across the stage to unfurl a celebratory feast; streamers herald ceremony. Boone makes the schematic, action-filled play stylish and fluid, linking Shakespeare's disparate developments through, among other things, the minor characters, who are everywhere, stamping their feet in emphasis, turning away in disapproval and unsnapping bright fans in attitude, providing a much-needed Greek chorus. Her oversights -- underplaying the climactic reunions, doubling up on casting in confusing ways -- seem negligible because of her achievement in figuring out how to marry a large venue to a sprawling text.

She's immensely aided by Arch Andrus' impressionistic set. Horrific masks sit atop poles, announcing Antiochus' incestuous sins. When another pole is draped with ropes, it becomes Pericles' storm-tossed vessel. There are columns of pressed white fabric framing the stage with a befitting aura of royalty. And above everything flies a huge map, marking for all the innumerable stops on Pericles' fated journey.

This Pericles rightly puts technical considerations to the fore -- the text can't really hold up otherwise -- and the accomplished stage crew succeeds in everything Boone asks of them. The actors, while competent, don't quiet equal their surroundings. Dennis Turney brings an urgent nobility to Pericles, but the character -- in rapid succession experiencing every low and high imaginable, from loss of wife to visitation from a goddess -- needs something more. It's a difficult role, but it demands a broader emotional spectrum than Turney supplies. As Pericles' daughter Marina, Amy Bruce is a gritty beauty resolved to protect her virtue. But the character is written more as being so pure that she's commanding in her innocence; so Bruce, while magnetic, is misapplied. And Walton Wilson, in a crucial role as a narrator, comes off more as an orator.

He does much better as Jaques, the melancholy duke in As You Like It, Shakespeare's comedy of romance and cross-dressing in which the maiden Rosalind takes the guise of a boy to teach her hoped-for love Orlando a lesson or two. As Jaques, Wilson is asked to make the famous "All the world's a stage" speech twice, and both recitations are exactly what they should be: the first time -- at the beginning of the play as a framing device -- it's inviting, the second time, it's knowing.

Wilson isn't the only actor who's better in Like than in Pericles. Derek Alan Cecil is nondescript in Pericles, but as the love-struck shepherd Silvius in Like, he's all comical mooning. Rutherford Cravens may make for a perfunctory villainous king in Pericles, but he's wily as the clown Touchstone, infusing him with a relaxed confidence.

The real transformation, though, belongs to Barbara Caren Sims. She's too shrewish as evil Dionyza in Pericles, but as Rosalind in Like she's a revelation, lovely as a woman, but even more engaging as a man. Though a bit old for the part, she's more than up to the seriocomic gymnastics of playing a woman playing a man playing the very same woman. As for Dennis Turney, his fair-haired, boyish good looks fit him better in the role of Orlando than in the role of Pericles, and though he exhibits terrific stage presence, as Orlando he's too intense. Turney's strength as an actor is his passion, but here his character should be feverish instead.

Similarly, director Sidney Berger strains too hard, nearly turning Shakespeare's frothy dream into a nightmare. For a while, even the pastoral songs wind up somber. It's as if Berger is determined to go against Shakespeare's grain. And Berger never does figure out how to create transitions, other than through the momentum-halting tactic of walking characters on while others walk off. But the mood lightens, and enchantment is rediscovered, in the second half, when Rosalind and company start sparring for the heart. And the wedding scene is pretty as a picture, though the celebratory dance to end the show seems forced.

Finally, a few general kudos. In both Pericles and As You Like It, the actors manage the sometimes rough task of making Shakespeare easily comprehensible to even unfamiliar ears. Their rhythm is accessible, their meter is melodious and their cadence is helpful. "I can understand what they're saying," an adult near me exclaimed in relief one night; a child said the same thing in triumph the next evening. Vocal coach Deborah Kinghorn deserves some accolades, especially considering that most of the actors haven't been classically trained. Nor would I wager that many of the actors have had much experience in performing such demanding texts in repertory. Alternating in any two plays on successive nights is no mean feat; when it's Shakespeare, some sort of medal is in order.

Pericles plays August 3, 5, 9 and 11; As You Like It plays August 2, 4, 10 and 12 at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park, 743-2929.

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Peter Szatmary