PERICLES directed by Peter Sellars

Pericles is something of a cartoon – something of a joke, really, one of the most puzzling, uneven, and rarely performed texts in Shakespeare’s canon. Still, there are many good reasons one might imagine for Peter Sellars’s wanting to direct it. Because it is rarely seen, an ambitious young director has few rival productions to contend with. Because the text is thought corrupt, a flamboyant director cannot be accused of desecrating a masterpiece. In fact, the play, with its uncharacteristic sprawl through time and space and its odd passages of dreams, supernatural events, and choral imprecations, seems like a perfect playground for a rambunctious postmodern stage director like Sellars. (I must admit that reading the speculation about Pericles’ authorship in F. D. Hoeniger’s definitive edition I thought of the communal handiwork that went into making the musical My One and Only, Sellars’s last big Boston adventure.) Finally, a conceptualist as penetrating yet literal-minded as Sellars would notice that the play contains three resurrections, and he has just the sort of rascally arrogance that would celebrate his inauguration as artistic director of a nine-year-old theater company with a play about resurrection.

The miracle is that Sellars has, with a single production, transformed the Boston Shakespeare Company from a post-collegiate amateur company that no one took seriously into a vital art theater for the Boston community. Taking over this theater was a calculated gamble – why should anyone else in the world care what goes on at the Boston Shakespeare Company? Nevertheless, his bold work for the American Repertory Theater (The Inspector General, Orlando), the Chicago Lyric Opera (The Mikado), and the La Jolla Playhouse (Brecht’s The Visions of Simone Machard) has already established him as one of the handful of American stage directors who automatically commands attention, in no small part because it is always inspiring to watch a talented young artist tackle and reinvigorate a classical art form.

Sellars’ productions always burst with conceptual ideas that in a lesser director’s hands would be called gimmicks, and Pericles was no exception. Take the choice of music: Debussy on tape, two Beethoven sonatas played live at an onstage baby grand, and at key points in the play, the Delta-based blues of Elmore James (“Stormy Monday” during a storm at sea, “Shake Your Moneymaker” introducing the brothel scene, etc.). The blues tunes also related to the casting of black actors in two major roles. Ben Halley Jr. played Pericles with breathtaking majesty, and to speak the singsongy choral interludes of John Gower, the poet who supposedly returns from the grave to tell this story, Sellars hired the eccentric street performer and radio personality Brother Blue – a conceptual coup but a practical mistake, because his jivey rapping garbled crucial exposition.

Besides these sweeping choices, Sellars applied his inventiveness to individual scenes with equal verve. In the first scene, where Pericles divines the secret incest between Antiochus and his daughter, the pair appeared as pornographic images – he in a leather s&m harness, she in white bra and panties like an underwear ad. This scene, taken with the brothel scene in which Pericles’s beloved daughter Marina faced three denizens wearing animal masks, sounded a theme of degraded sexuality and man’s sick need to destroy beauty. Marina was played by the only performer other than Halley and Brother Blue not double-cast and who never appeared masked, which emphasized her singularity. Time after time she talked her way out of being killed or defiled with a voluble eloquence that could only be explained in so young and unschooled a girl by acknowledging that goodness has its own power that can prevail over the violent and sexual powers in man and nature.

Sellars presented the quest for goodness as central to Pericles, and in his typically arcane and articulate program notes he discussed the play as Shakespeare’s attempt to address – after writing Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth – the possibility of a happy ending. The director figured that the Bard found his inspiration in Christian mystery plays and the model of death-and-resurrection, so throughout his production Sellars stressed the Christliness of Pericles (not difficult given Ben Halley’s evangelical performing style), not as a religious martyr but as a man who tries to do good, seems to lose everything, and is eventually rewarded for his suffering.

If the entire show resided on this lofty plane, it would surely have gotten dull. Luckily, Sellars has a low side to indulge as well. The Tempest-like scene in which Pericles washes ashore at Pentapolis was treated as pure slapstick; the fishermen who rescued him were regular “hosers” in flannel shirts and red noses. The knights’ competititon for the hand of the princess Thaisa was more buffoonery, and the dance celebrating her union with Pericles was a riot – their courtly minuet set off rock and roll gyrations among the guests that looked like the antler dance from Saturday Night Live, and eventually Pericles and Thaisa got into a down-and-dirty bump themselves. While some of these scenes were staged with the visual splendor of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, some were simply cheap thrills, like the storm at sea lit by a single lamp swinging wildly across the stage, casting huge, vertiginous shadows. Although Pericles was produced at the Jean Cocteau Rep two seasons ago in a well-reviewed Genet-like production, it’s hard to imagine anyone in New York giving Peter Sellars the resources to do this kind of freewheeling, uncut three-and-a-half-hour production. His gamble has paid off.

Village Voice, November 22, 1983
Excerpted from a longer essay on Boston theater -- for the full text, click here.