Everyone from the theater community, it seemed, was there on Friday to witness Joseph Haj’s opening night at the Guthrie. Directors, actors, designers, arts bigwigs and patrons crowded into the Wurtele Thrust to watch the new artistic director’s signature Shakespeare production of “Pericles.”
Haj sat with family and watched his gorgeously made show play out on its largest stage yet — following celebrated productions in Oregon and Washington, D.C.
What we see is a director’s distinctive eye for imagery, a confident use of pageantry and a deep respect for ritual. His ear, too, is sharp, as Haj invited composer Jack Herrick to adorn this loopy play with such lovely songs and soundscapes that we mused whether this might be a template for “Pericles: The Musical!” — in the very best sense.
In fact, Haj owes his technical crew mightily. Francesca Talenti’s video designs evoke the cosmos with stars, tempests and moons — meshed with Rui Rita’s lighting scheme and Jan Chambers’ multiplatform set of what appear to be large plates of marble shards. Costumer Raquel Barreto creates striking and iconographic looks for the actors, many of whom are double and triple cast. The production looks fabulous.
“Pericles” is not Shakespeare’s best work, yet Haj professes his love for an episodic story (narrated by Armando Durán’s likable Gower) that proposes a young prince who skirts death at the hands of an immoral king, sails into storm after storm, communes with a hippie king (laid-back Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and his ditzy daughter, Thaisa (antic Brooke Parks). She will become his wife, die in childbirth (or so he believes) and leave the young man with a baby for whom he decides he cannot care. Ultimately he winds up an old man whipped by fate. Tough day at the office, indeed.
Haj’s grasp of imagery emerges often — large in the billowing sea that rolls over the stage in fabric, small in the powerful, shamanistic ritual where a doctor (Barzin Akhavan) revives Thaisa. In a jaw-dropping tableau, actor Emily Serdahl creates a human sculpture as the goddess Diana, suspended above the stage and presiding over peace and harmony.
Then there is the sea again, rolling literally this time on video, and seamlessly merging with the live scene in which Pericles cradles his infant daughter upon his wife’s death.
However, this visually stunning scene indicates the Achilles’ heel of Haj’s production. Wayne T. Carr’s Pericles struggles to compete for our heart amid the enormous spectacle of sea, sound, lights and shadow. The fairy-tale staging, in all its beauty, feels emotionally restrained in the acting — to the point where it feels lines are merely being read and key moments are unobserved.
Make no mistake, you will be entertained. But moved? When Pericles and Thaisa first touch to dance, fumbling comedy replaces what we desperately hoped might be a sweet, poignant instant. Villains are comic pop-ups, bleached of menace, and we never worry that we need to take any of this too seriously.
The language does not feel robust. Michael Hume is an exception, his voice and manner penetrating in several roles, including Pericles’ faithful lieutenant and later as a generously zaftig brothel madame. Jennie Greenberry’s Marina has by far the greatest emotional resonance of anyone on stage.
Carr, for better or worse, rarely looks as if he has a bother on him, until his late-life period of grief.
“Pericles” does not invite deep character study and perhaps Haj considered that to be the best of reasons to focus on the visual and ritual strengths of his production. His imagination and an impressive ability to draw the best from artistic collaborators are welcome in this new age of the Guthrie Theater.