A Company of Fools’ latest Torchlight Shakespeare production, The Amazing Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, makes the most of one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays, imbuing it with such energy and pizzazz that it’s not hard to overlook the weaknesses of the text.
Pericles tells the story of its title character, king of the city of Tyre, who due to a series of dramatically convenient storms at sea finds love, loses his family, and eventually gets them back. It’s a loose plot that jumps between several different locations in the Eastern Mediterranean over an extended period of time (at point we jump 14 years ahead). A lot of the plot relies on coincidence (and in one scene, divine intervention), so this is one of the Bard’s less-produced plays (traditionally this would be considered an epic plot rather than a dramatic one – epic plots work really well for novels and TV shows like Game of Thrones, but they can be a bit frustrating in theatrical performance. Traditionally a dramatic plot would have fewer jumps in time and space, like how A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place over a 24-hour period and in different locations in and around Athens). The plot is winding, but the crack team that the Fools have assembled turn the shortcomings of the script into opportunities to express the irreverent tone that Ottawa audiences have come to expect from this company. There is one sequence (well, maybe one and a half) that is a bit problematic, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
There are quite a few fresh faces onstage and behind the scenes in this show, and they work well with the veterans to continue to deliver the zany blend of clown, puppetry, and classical repertoire that is the hallmark of a Fools show. Onstage, the first-timers include Jennifer Cecil, Mahalia Golnosh Tahririha, Mekdes Teshome, and Mary Ellis, who share the playing space with seasoned Fools AL Connors and Pierre Brault. Each brings something of their own: Cecil’s impressive vocal abilities are a delight (in the outdoor venues that this production is touring, a definite asset), particularly during a choral passage in which she sings out a fake epitaph (it makes sense in the show). Tahririha shows virtuosity between playing an oily assassin and Pericles’ daughter Marina, a character whose beauty, virtue, and gentility is so overstated that the character ceases to have any real personality, and yet when Tahririha plays her, all of Marina’s annoying perfection comes off as common sense (except for the speech where, trying to convince a hired assassin not to kill her, she can only offer up the time she stepped on a worm as an example of her wrongdoing to others, which is genuinely funny because even though the speech is completely ridiculous Tahririha plays it with total seriousness). Teshome brings a lovely understated physicality to both the wise women she portrays, and a less understated physicality as timid would-be assassin Leonine. Her Leonine is all nervously darting eyes and uncertain posturing with a sword, and it contrasts wonderfully with the quiet grace of stately Helicana and the forceful benevolence of wizard/doctor Cerimon. Since both Cerimon and Helicana are supposed to be onstage at the same time in the final scene, there’s a great moment where Teshome suddenly reappears as Cerimon after departing the stage as Helicana, with a hint of a smirk that is all the acknowledgement the audience needs to be let in on the joke.
Ellis has been active in the Ottawa theatre community for several years but this is her first Fools production, and she gets to set the tone for the show (after the ensemble gives a musical prologue) when she plays lecherous King Antiochus in the opening scene with all the panache of a mustachio-twirling vaudeville villain.
The old hands are impressive as well: Brault, king of the aside, has a special knack for connecting with the audience through a combination of well-chosen winks and improvised comments (on opening night, without so much as a breath in between, he finished a passage in which his character eloquently states his moral quandary before immediately making eye contact with an unsuspecting audience member and saying, “Yeah, think about that.”). Connors, as our titular hero, has to be a little more restrained on the silliness but certainly gets in on the action with his own improvised asides, such as Antioch’s “lovely pedestrian bridge” (all Monday night performances are at Strathcona Park, where the new Adàwe pedestrian bridge sits in the background for the audience). His revealing facial expressions while he reads a riddle with an icky answer and during the staging of the several storms at sea (putting up with a lot of water being sprayed at him by Teshome) don’t win over the audience as directly as Brault’s winks or Tahririha’s occasional mugging, but it’s a slow build of playing the silly as serious that get the audience hooked on his story.
The performers aren’t the only ones who give this production its gusto: director/dramaturg Catriona Leger, costume designer Vanessa Imeson, and composer Mischelle Cuttler deserve their fair share of credit as well. Leger offers up a wacky interpretation of the script with humorous verve: Pericles arrives at famine-stricken Tarsus with his ships full of corn for the starving people, shown through his gift of kettle corn/Corn Pops/corn chips/ears of corn to King Cleon. As the text jumps in time and space frequently, there is an epic narrator who starts each act and appears a few other times as well, and Leger has made the bold (but right) choice in assigning these speeches not to one actor but to the whole ensemble, usually adapted into a choral song. Her director’s notes in the programme attribute this choice to the collective nature of a Company of Fools, but it also helps to make the performance a more dynamic experience as well as adding to the ‘travelling players’ vibe that the Torchlight Shakespeare series is all about.
Vanessa Imeson’s costumes are stunning and striking. Because the action of the play switches between 5 main locations – Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Mytilene, and Ephesus, as well as the first scene in Antioch – Imeson colour-codes the costumes so that we know where we are even before the actors start to speak. Most striking are the turquoise dresses that Pericles’ wife Thaisa and daughter Marina wear, as well as the orange-dominated ensemble that Teshome dons as Cerimon. Imeson’s not afraid to get in on the irreverent tone either: Thaliard, the lord Antiochus sends to have Pericles killed, wears a very Assassin’s Creed-style cowl while on his way though the audience to find Pericles.
Mishelle Cuttler has composed some very nice harmonies for the chorus parts, taking advantage of Brault’s guitar- and Tahririha’s violin-playing abilities. The violin in particular is an unexpected but very pleasant addition to the music, although it doesn’t come up in the orchestrations as often as it could. Any weakness in the music (barring someone with a better sense of pitch/musical theory than me pointing out things I might have missed) has more to do with the somewhat inconsistent adaptation of the epic narration into choral song. The narration is one of the few elements that stays consistent in the original text but not all of the passages are done as accompanied chorus numbers, which unfortunately allows for a bit of a drop in energy during an unfortunate sequence of scenes.
The sequence I mentioned as being problematic likely also contributes to the slight drop in energy before the final act, but once I explain hopefully you’ll understand why I can’t blame Leger and the rest of the Fools for playing it safe here. The sequence in question concerns Pericles’ daughter Marina after we’ve jumped forward in time to see her grown up. After begin captured by pirates, Marina is sold into prostitution at a brothel in Mytilene, and the scene where she attempts to convince the madam to let her go is about as awful as you might think. Watching a young woman (who just a few minutes previously we saw living as a virtuous princess) try to protect her honour with her honour is especially distressing given changing attitudes towards sexual violence and the importance of consent in recent years. The Fools totally could play this up with their great energy, but since the Torchlight series attracts a lot of families with young children it’s probably for the best that they don’t (besides, it would be frighteningly easy for the scene to go from playfully irreverent to sending off rape-y vibes). Strangely the first scene, where Pericles makes the discovery that Antiochus and his daughter are in an incestuous relationship, doesn’t have this issue, but that may due to Ellis and Brault as the father-daughter duo playing the incest as being totally consensual. Whatever the issue is here, the Fools do get back their vitality in time for the last act, where (of course) we get the happy ending we’ve been waiting for.
All in all, this is a great production of a mediocre text. The shortcomings of the script are blown away by the zest of the Fools’ trademark style, which hasn’t suffered at all in the hands of the newcomers to the company. The first show I saw in Ottawa when I moved here in 2009 was the Torchlight series’ Much Ado about Nothing with founding Fools Scott Florence and Margo MacDonald, and while the vibes aren’t totally the same between then and now (the 2009 show was extremely minimal in terms of set, costumes, and cast size), I’d say the change is more of a maturation than an uprooting. The company is facing a lot of turnover with founding members leaving to pursue other projects, so Leger is the new Artistic Director and uOttawa graduate Alexandra Isenor the new General Manager. In fact, the uOttawa connection to this show is quite strong: Teshome and Tahririha are also recent graduates of the university’s Department of Theatre, as is stage manager Jacki Brabazon, and Leger has also taught and directed at the university as well. The same uOttawa connection that I found in French-language theatre with Le Long de la Principale at La Nouvelle Scéne earlier this year has found its Anglophone equivalent with the Fools, and I couldn’t be happier to see the opportunity for aspiring theatre artists to study and create professional-level work in our stereotypically dull capital city and overturn that damaging reputation. The Amazing Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre may not be a perfect show, but it’s fun to watch and it gives me hope for the future of theatre in this city.
The Amazing Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Running Time: approximately 90 minutes without intermission
From July 4 – August 20
At various parks around Ottawa, 7pm (check fools.ca for the full schedule; every Monday the performance is at Strathcona Park)
a Company of Fools production
Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Catriona Leger
Musical Composition by Mishelle Cuttler
Performed by Pierre Brault, Jennifer Cecil, AL Connors, Mary Ellis, Mahalia Golnosh Tahririha, and Mekdes Teshome
Stage Management by Jacki Brabazon
Apprentice Stage Manager: Zahra Larche
Costume and Puppet Design by Vanessa Imeson
Costume Assistant: Even Gilchrist
Set Design by Stephanie Dahmer Brett
Assistant Director: Phoebe Santini
Production Management by Geoff McBride
Assistant Production Manager: J. Katrina Wong
Program Layout and Design: J. Katrina Wong
Apprentice Production Manager: Brittany Johnston
Graphic Design by Adam Pockaj
General Manager: Alexandra Isenor
Front-of-House Manager: Gertrude Wilkes
Front-of-House Assistant: Kayla McSorley
Volunteer Coordinator: Shannon Leak