The works of Shakespeare have been performed in countless venues and formats, from the Globe Theatre in London to Shakespeare in the Parking Lot; from airplanes to pubs; from Kenneth Branaugh Hollywood spectacles to Japanese samurai dramas. Now, the Connecticut Repertory Theatre is bringing us “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” via Zoom, preserving the live element of stage performance, albeit without the physical connection.
CRT has been relying on virtual performances for a semester and a half now, meaning they’ve had plenty of room for trial and error. My first impression of the show was that it presented a sizable improvement from last semester’s “Men on Boats.” Whereas that play had a fairly minimalist style in terms of art direction and transitions, “Pericles” features impressive digital art from Amber Meadows and Austin Kuhn to establish locations and serve as backgrounds. The reason for this decision was to resemble the format of a graphic novel, with the rectangular boxes of the actors serving as panels. The idea is fascinating, but never feels fully realized due to technical barriers.
This show is also notable for using shadow puppets created by Genna Beth Davidson and Ginny Oertli to transition between scenes and act out moments that would be too difficult with the socially distanced actors (each actor appears separately from their own filming location, like in any typical video call). It can feel slightly jarring at times, but it mostly works and comes off as unique and creative.
“Pericles” has never been considered among Shakespeare’s better plays, at least not since its short-lived popularity at the time of its initial release in the early 1600s. Playwright Ben Johnson called it a “mouldy tale” and Shakespeare scholar G. William Knight described it as “merely a succession of happenings linked by sea-journeys.” Knight’s description, although seemingly harsh, actually presents a fairly accurate representation of the play. Absent are the introspective monologues of “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” or the witty dialogue of “Richard III” and “Taming of the Shrew.” Instead, “Pericles” is surprisingly plot-heavy, trading in character development and well-defined relationships for an episodic collection of scenes advancing characters from point A to point B.
While the play’s weakness is apparent, especially in comparison to more well-known and well-regarded works by the Bard, that isn’t to say there is no enjoyment to be had. I found the second half to be far better than the first. This comes as no surprise, considering some modern scholars believe the first half was not mainly written by Shakespeare, but by his associate George Wilkins, an inn-keeper and possible pimp.
The main disadvantage of the play’s second half is the general absence of the titular Pericles from the narrative until the end. Damian Thompson’s portrayal of the character was by far the highlight of the performance, bringing a gravitas and power of delivery that almost elevated the show above its less than ideal platform.
In terms of the rest of the cast, I feel they were solid enough with what they were given. At times, there were certain choices that felt a bit too broad — and, on a personal note, I always feel a certain degree of unease hearing Shakespearean dialogue delivered in American accents. Overall, I feel the cast fell into their roles far better in the second half, which was most likely helped by the improved quality of the material.
Despite the play’s two hour length, it has been trimmed in certain areas. One benefit to the change in platforms was that I could have my copy of the text beside me to occasionally check for alterations. Otherwise, director Ralph Massie has done a commendable job maintaining the structural integrity of the play. The only noteworthy departure from the text I noticed was that “the great pirate Valdes” was amusingly renamed “the great pirate Nicolle,” presumably in reference to actress Nicolle Cooper, who fills that role in this production.
All things considered, Zoom is no replacement for real theatre, nor will it ever be, but obviously the pandemic has required casts and crews to make sacrifices and adjustments in order to continue to make live shows. I sympathize with the difficulties and uncertainties faced when putting together any sort of show in our current times, and I believe creators and performers deserve a certain degree of leniency and support for attempting to overcome these barriers to still entertain and engage audiences. Clearly, many of the qualities that attract me to live theatre year in and year out and have made me continue to review shows at UConn for almost four years now are gone. However, the ingenuity and creativity on display here impressed me very much. I look forward to a time when shows can once again be seen at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre or the Nafe Katter, but until then, the people in the CRT are doing a very fine job with what they have.
“Pericles” will continue to run from Wednesday, March 3, through Sunday, March 7. Tickets are available on the Connecticut Repertory Theatre website, https://crt.uconn.edu/. The show runs for 2 hours with a 10-minute intermission roughly halfway through.