‘Pericles’ Review — Inspired Storytelling, Stage Magic Enchant at Chicago Shakes

 

Pericles (Ben Carlson) weds Thaisa (Lisa Berry) to the delight of her father, King Simonides (Kevin Gudahl)

Incest, murder for hire, prostitution — Shakespeare doesn’t shy away from thorny topics in “Pericles,” his late romance now in a sensual production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Yet rather than weighing the play down, these serious subjects infuse “Pericles” with enough heft to make its many pleasures double as valuable education. As Horace advised, combining “dulce et utile,” the sweet and the useful, makes for the best poetry.

 

 

The court of Pentapolis celebrates feats of bravery by Pericles (Ben Carlson, foreground)

 

Even before the first players enter, the thrust stage is set for a seafaring yarn upon what looks like the upturned hull of a ship embedded in the sands (artful scenic design by Scott Davis, meticulously crafted). Tempestuous waves (on-the-mark video projection by Aaron Rhyne), a chorus clad in seafoam green (Nan Cibula-Jenkins’ costume design in perfect sync with the tale) and evocative lighting (by Jesse Klug) and sound (by James Savage) suffuse the space with atmospheric drama even before Pericles enters. Indeed, the stagecraft throughout is at the highest level, enough perhaps to mask the shortcomings of a lesser production.

 

Ben Carlson in Shakespeare's 'Pericles'

 

Luckily, no masking is needed here because this “Pericles” is superbly performed under David H. Bell’s masterful direction. Chicagoans are fortunate that Canadian actor Ben Carlson likes to balance his summer work at the Stratford Festival with appearances at Chicago Shakes (The School for Lies, Hamlet, Macbeth, St. Joan), because Carlson brings an emotional depth to Pericles that bonds the audience to the character from his first words. Here is a character who suffers the trials of Job but whose moral compass remains on true north.

 

 

Thaisa (Lisa Berry) is magically healed by seer Cerimon (Ross Lehman) as Eric Parks and Sean Fortunato look on

 

Recapping the plot of this episodic tale isn’t really necessary, because Bell’s storytelling is so clear that the audience has no trouble following the ins and outs of Pericles’ stormy journey, with its effectively staged disasters at sea: one almost feels the need to call out to Pericles, “Don’t get on another boat!” But Pericles is willing to weather these difficult voyages to fight for his kingdom and even more for his family. His story is, like many of Shakespeare’s, one of father-daughter relationships (several of these — the good, the evil and the dysfunctional), of loves lost and recovered (if you can believe in magic, and Ross Lehman playing Cerimon makes magic entirely credible), of faith and redemption.

 

 

 

The players are all topnotch, with Christina Panfilio especially moving in the role of Pericles’ daughter, Marina. Sean Fortunato plays both sides of the coin, first as the despicable father figure Antiochus and later as the virtuous Lysimachus. This double casting not only allows Chicago Shakes to make full use of its players but also suggests the ambiguities that make us human.

 

The lords and ladies of Pentapolis rejoice

 

Rarely have I seen a production of Shakespeare where my attention never flagged, but this “Pericles” keeps its audience engaged throughout its two-and-a-half hours. The gripping tale is interspersed with lively song and dance (music direction by Ethan Deppe) and accompanied by alluring visuals, such as the jewel-toned lanterns that crown some scenes like glittering eye candy. Buy a ticket and be assured of smooth theatrical sailing.

 

 

 

Pericles

 

Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago; discounted parking in Navy Pier garages

 

Through Jan. 18, 2015

 

Tickets $58 ­– $78 with discounts for groups and CST for $20 for patrons under 35 at Chicago Shakes or (312) 595-5600

 

 

 

Photos: Liz Lauren

 

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