BWW Review: Shakespeare's Befuddling PERICLES Benefits from We Happy Few's Shameless Cast
As acknowledged by Director Kiernan McGowan's program note, Pericles is a hot mess of a show. It was only half-written by Shakespeare, completed later by George Wilkins (who isn't remembered for good reason). The incoherence of the plot reveals the fractured nature of the play's creation. It's understandable why this play is rarely produced. As We Happy Few demonstrates, however, this show can still be a fun ride if your performers lean into the script's ridiculousness.
Pericles (Grant Cloyd) embarks on a hero's journey reminiscent of Odysseus. He leaves his home and is chased by assassins (the assassins don't come back later). While at sea, he is thrashed around in a powerful tempest and washes ashore in a land that doubts his royal parentage. The plot veers wildly from romance to drama to melodrama to supernatural. Audiences will likely enjoy where Pericles ends up but will constantly wonder how he got there.
But the plot is ridiculous by design and We Happy Few does nothing to hide this fact. In fact, they often highlight the nonsensical nature of Pericles's adventure through coy looks to the audience, witty asides and the occasional musical interlude. There are several moments where audience members audibly asked "what is happening" (myself included) but this shameless cast quickly regained focus and helped bring even the most tentative audience members along for the ride.
Grant Cloyd has the most difficult job of the evening as Pericles. His performance requires a certain grounded nature that reminds audience members this show is more than just a parody. Thankfully, Mr. Cloyd has a dry enough sense of humor and smart comedic timing to properly capitalize on Pericles's reactions to the off-the-wall antics around him.
What are these antics? The previously mentioned fighting is accompanied by high octane leaps across the small space of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Musical accompaniment is also provided by the cast who hum their way through popular musical accompaniment. When Pericles gets married, the cast leads a rousing rendition of "Crimson and Clover," which is as random as it sounds. As the play draws toward its conclusion, the cast is visited by the goddess Diana, whose grand presentation is underscored with a cappella accompaniment from the cast and waving flashlights. Such moments would derail a less energetic cast. But this group performs everything with such goofy earnestness that it's impossible not to laugh along with the ensemble.
All of these crazy moments throughout the evening are incredibly enjoyable. Unfortunately, these moments border on excessive. After all, it is hard to follow an already confusing plot when your attention is drawn more to a side conversation than to the characters designed to advance the plot. Enjoyment sometimes needs to be trumped by plot. This is the one area that needed the most improvement throughout We Happy Few's production.
Given the space at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop is tiny and awkwardly shaped, the bare set with props by Evangelina Hakes is incredibly serviceable. The proscenium thrust style allows for more formal moments while letting the actors mingle with audience members freely during the performance. There is an odd disconnect in costuming, as there's not a clear time period for the clothes. One cast member wore a hoodie while another had an off-the-shoulder blouse reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean. It is nice that Moyenda Kulemeka's design allowed for so much movement among the performers, but it would have been better to have all of the outfits coalesce more.
At 90 minutes (no intermission) the production moves at a very brisk pace. Kiernan McGowan is less concerned about total plot comprehension than he is on reaching the next gag as quickly as possible. It is a nice approach to a haphazard play as it prevents the audience from college pondering the plot holes too intensely. Instead, the night is all about enjoying the experience of a rarely produced piece of classical theater.
We Happy Few have turned one of Shakespeare's most forgettable duds into an enjoyable evening at the theater. This is no easy feat and one that should be properly commended. The production is not without its flaws but, thanks in large part to a cast who dives head first into each ridiculous moment after the next, you won't be thinking of the flaws as you leave the theater. Instead, you'll be grateful that you've seen an undoubtedly one-of-a-kind production.
We Happy Few's Pericles runs approximately 90 minutes without an intermission and plays through June 8 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. For tickets and information, click here.
Sam Abney is a Washington, D.C. based arts professional. A native of Arizona, he has happily made D.C. his new home. Sam is a graduate from George Mason University with a degree in Communication and currently works for Arena Stage as a member of their Development team. He is a life-long lover of theater and is excited about sharing his passion with as many people as possible.
To stay up-to-date on reviews from Sam, click here and subscribe to alerts.