A carpet, a table, a few chairs, eight actors and voilà: Shakespeare. The Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare production of Pericles has come back home to Lafayette Street after performances in 18 venues ranging from homeless shelters to community centers to prisons, even empty store fronts. The idea is to bring Shakespeare to audiences who don’t usually have access to theatre. The show here (where tickets are only $20 and community groups are invited) is exactly the same as the one taken on the road. It’s an energetic production and one that serves as a glorious reminder of why Shakespeare is still performed.
The young cast set the inclusive tone immediately by explaining that the music is acapella and the audience needs to clap along. In the Public’s Shiva theatre and everywhere else the play has been, the performance is in the round; the actors rarely stop moving, and the drama is very close to the audience. Pericles, which was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays in his lifetime, is action packed with shipwrecks, famine, pirates, a brothel and an incestuous king. It has enough plot twists, coincidences and double crossings to provide fodder for a whole season of soap opera. But this show lasts just 100 minutes, with eight actors playing the forty characters on a minimal set by Wilson Chin and with versatile costumes by Moria Sine Clinton (try and count the number of uses of an infinity scarf). Yet somehow each character remains distinct and recognizable.
The mesmerizing Tiffany Rachelle Stewart plays Antiochus’ daughter, Pericles’ wife Thaisa, an over-the-hill hooker in a brothel and other smaller parts, all to equal effect. Her rendition of Thaisa’s realization that she has survived being buried at sea is truly moving.
But there are lighthearted moments as well. J.D. Webster and Ben Mehl bring out all the humor of the fishermen who rescue Pericles from the sea, while David Ryan Smith has fun as King Simonides in the scene where the prince asks for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The role of Marina, Pericles’s daughter, is played by Flor de Liz Perez, who puts her beautifully melodic voice and slight frame to good use. A scene where she preserves her virtue despite the plans of a pushy Madam is an exercise in determination, but she is just as good as Marina’s old nanny.
Raffi Barsoumian, as Pericles, is the only actor who gets just one part but he puts as much energy into the role as those who are playing multiple characters. Amanda Quaid and Christopher Kelly are deliciously evil as Dionyza and Cleon, the rulers who plot to kill Marina when she is supposed to be in their care. The versatility required to keep these multiple roles straight is testament to the dedication of the cast.
To see Shakespeare performed for the first time in a production like this must be an eye-opening and inspiring experience, which is part of the point of taking a play like this on the road to the most unlikely venues. If this were your first encounter with a Shakespeare play you would probably come away wanting to see more.