Six months into his new job at the Guthrie Theater, Joseph Haj finally has gotten back into the rehearsal room.
It felt great, Haj said, to push himself away from the artistic director’s desk and get his fingernails dirty with Shakespeare’s “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” which gives Twin Cities audiences their first glimpse of Haj’s acumen as a stage director. The show, which has been in previews for a week, officially opens Friday.
“This is a chance to reinvestigate the play,” Haj said of a production that started last year at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and then moved to the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. “The cast has been working on this for a year but we have to ask ourselves, ‘How do we make sense of it here?’ ”
The Guthrie thrust stage is by far the largest venue this “Pericles” has visited, which means Haj and his collaborators have redesigned the production and turned an eye on just how the piece moves and acts on the big stage.
“I told the cast that just like the stock market, past success is no indicator of future performance,” Haj said.
Make no mistake, the production has succeeded in its two iterations — the reviews are there on the World Wide Web for all to read. (“A magic carpet ride” said the Portland Oregonian while the Washington Post praised Haj’s “inventive storytelling.”)
“Pericles” is “well outside the Shakespeare hit parade,” Haj said, which he considers an asset. For many, it will feel like a new play, because it is rarely produced.
The director has been fond of the quirky and problematic farrago since he acted in a 1991 staging at New York’s Public Theater, directed by Michael Greif (who staged Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual” at the Guthrie) and starring Campbell Scott in the title role.
“It’s a sophisticated play, a deep and mature play that I’ve always been pulled toward,” Haj said. In addition to this production, he staged the work at PlayMakers Rep in North Carolina several years ago.
This show, which opened at Oregon last March, stars Wayne T. Carr as Pericles. Haj used visual projections as part of his design and engaged Tony-winning composer Jack Herrick to create live and recorded music.
A play with notoriety
“Pericles” has a checkered history. Haj concedes that he is “one of about three people who believe it is the work of one writer.”
The conventional wisdom is that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the first two acts and then Will himself picked up the thread for the final three acts. At the most generous end, some critical observers through the centuries have suggested that Shakespeare wrote those first acts early in his career and then returned to finish the story in his wise twilight.
Haj doesn’t say whether he subscribes to that theory, but he indicates that he does see in the work a dichotomy of youth and maturity.
“In the first two acts, we see Pericles as the young man, full of ego and feelings of immortality,” he said. “As Pericles matures, the play matures.”
The play was not included in the First Folio — the first published collection of Shakespeare’s drama — and that omission raised questions about authorship and whether the editor of the folio felt the play was faulty. The great playwright and critic Ben Jonson dismissed “Pericles” most famously as “A Mouldy Tale.” That audiences in Shakespeare’s time enthusiastically liked the work only convinced Jonson of their vulgar tastes. Alexander Pope called it a counterfeit.
“If it’s not in the First Folio, people are skeptical,” said Doug Green, a professor of English at Augsburg College. “Almost from the get-go, the first two acts don’t look like Shakespeare. We know it was played by the King’s Men and it sounds like Shakespeare but it is pretty clear that Shakespeare had a major hand in the last three acts.”
After the initial spate of popularity, “Pericles” fell out of fashion for hundreds of years. The worm began to turn back in the early 20th century. T.S. Eliot found such inspiration in the relationship between Pericles and his daughter that he wrote the poem “Marina.” While serious Shakespeare scholars persisted in their disdain for shallow characters who functioned more as symbols, Eliot felt these creations represented something greater than mere humans.
Like Haj, Minneapolis director Joel Sass is a fan. He brought “Pericles” to the Guthrie Lab in 2005 and then staged it again at California Shakespeare Theater.
“The issue of authorship is an interesting classroom debate but of no interest to an artist who looks at the text as a blueprint for what goes on stage,” said Sass. “Its fairy-tale architecture really appealed to the storyteller in me.”
Sass, whose eye for high-stakes drama is quite sharp, said that the play refuses to adhere to the imperfect yardsticks of comedy and tragedy and finds in the juxtaposition of those opposites the mysteries of human interaction.
“It has a lot of the DNA of the best cable TV drama,” Sass said. “Part of what makes ‘Fargo’ such a phenomenon is that it fearlessly marries slapstick physical humor with episodes that are deeply harrowing in the dramatic sense.”
Themes of a mature writer
Haj says many of the same things that Sass does. Once you have chosen a play — for whatever reason — you form an organizing principle, use the words that are on the page (whosever they are) and create an event.
“Pericles” was a later work and Haj said it feels of a piece with “The Winter’s Tale.” In that story, a mighty king loses his mind, his beloved and his offspring through his own jealous weaknesses. Following a repentance, he is redeemed.
Pericles, too, loses his princely position and flees for his life but it is through no fault of his own. He embarks on a series of adventures, feels at one point that he has lost his family and swirls round to a happy ending. The episodic nature of the play has frustrated directors.
“It is an allegory for life lived,” Haj said. “The travel, the adventure, represent places we’ve been in our lives and that deeply resonated with me. It’s a search for home, and I think that’s a very mature theme — a theme of an older man.”
If nothing else, Haj inaugurates his Guthrie leadership with a Shakespeare play that allows him to exercise a wide theatrical berth and indicates a desire to stretch the canon.
Joe Dowling chose “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” as his first Shakespeare at the Guthrie and returned to it twice more in productions that pushed the boundaries. Garland Wright introduced his Shakespeare portfolio to Guthrie audiences with the darker “Richard III.”
“You can’t always go to the six to 10 most familiar titles,” Haj said. “It’s exciting to have a Shakespeare that for many people will be a new play.”