Los Angeles Theater Review: PERICLES (The Porters of Hellsgate in North Hollywood)

by Jason Rohrer on May 6, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles

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PRINCE ON FIRE

Chronicling the lurid and lamentable swashbuckles of a permanent ingenue, Pericles is a Book of Job for the Age of Reason. If the play were self-aware enough to be cynical, with its outrageous slings and arrows it could be a grandfather to Voltaire’s Candide. But Pericles doesn’t enjoy the season-anchoring repute of a Hamlet, or even a Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare probably only wrote about half of it, for one thing; also, it’s got a plot collating the most ludicrous elements of Elizabethan melodrama. Characters are born at sea, they’re prematurely buried at sea, in multiple shipwrecks they are lost at sea; they gain and lose love and power at such velocity that at one point, a virgin princess about to be murdered by a contract killer gets snatched by pirates and sold to a brothel. And when she gets there, she bankrupts the place by convincing all her potential customers to repent and go home to their wives.

When it’s not tonally insane, the play is dramatically baffling: The first act invests heavily in the wickedness of a bad guy who vanishes only to be struck by lightning so far offstage that we only hear about it several acts later, after the story has replaced him with alternate antagonists. In fact, this convenient exit is telegraphed by a character who counsels the hero to avoid conflict and embark on new adventures, because in the meantime maybe the bad guy will just die. The traditional question is whether Pericles is less incompetent when viewed as a sporadic comedy or as a clunky romance.

But it’s hard to screw up a potboiler with more reversals of fortune than a Sunday in Atlantic City. Some unlooked-for menace is always jumping out of a corner, and what the script doesn’t justify can still work as long as the production keeps momentum toward the next crisis. In his new Porters of Hellsgate production, Charles Pasternak directs the hell out of the play by staging the moments as colorful micro-pageantry – “Look at this,” the show shouts and teases. “Look at what’s happening here. I dare you not to say ‘Holy shit.'”

Like Henry V in particular, Pericles uses a groundlings-friendly chorus as ringmaster to this circus, here embodied mostly by the cast’s five women, who give a recap every few scenes for what you might have missed and who comment on the lessons of the characters and themes. This production smartly treats the material like a good kids’ show, so the script’s lack of suspense and artful revelation is compensated for in volume of moral clarity. Pasternak uses his cast as a fluid, defining and moving the action in pleasant stage picture after dynamic stage picture after surprising stage picture.

It helps tremendously that, to flesh out his cartoon universe, the director employs Leon Russom to play three kings and a pimp. Russom’s Antiochus dominates the first act, a grin-licking monster who leers about sexing up his daughter; but, heroically, the actor differentiates the second act’s good king Simonides as a benevolent sport who doesn’t even creep you out when he winks about his own daughter’s wedding night. My favorite of Russom’s characters is Bolt, an embittered brothel flunky so offended by the new whore’s purity that he repeatedly threatens to rape the virtue out of her, and manages to get laughs out of it. Pasternak’s staging relies on Russom’s capacity to fill these varied roles, a safe and delightful bet.

Luke McClure makes a noble and intelligent Pericles, though he plays him as a little too self-possessed to be very sympathetic. If the show’s casting can be startlingly uneven in spots, the direction puts players in the right place at the right time. Alexandra Wright is particularly sharp and truthful, as usual. In this all-in staging, the ensemble creates mood mostly organically, making some effective sound effects with just their mouths. The group movement reveals space with consistent alacrity. Jessica Pasternak’s costumes are simple and expressive. And at over two hours, the show doesn’t feel long, which is the best thing I’ve ever said about a Shakespeare show with this many puns in it.

photos by Zachary Andrews

Pericles
The Porters of Hellsgate Theatre Company
Whitmore-Lindley Theatre
11006 Magnolia Blvd in North Hollywood
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on June 4, 2017
for tickets, visit Porters

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