Berkeley Rep’s Pericles: Prince of Tyre-less theatrics

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David Barlow (left) is Pericles and Annapurna Sriram is Marina in Mark Wing-Davey’s re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Evan Zes (left), Sriram (center) and Rami Margron tussle over virtue and capitalism in a later chapter of the Pericles saga. Photos courtesy of

There’s a rough beauty to director Mark Wing-Davey’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre now on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage. The industrial look of the bi-level set by Douglas Stein and Peter Ksander indicates that this will be a utilitarian telling of this dubious Shakespeare tale – dubious only because we don’t really know how much (if any) of the play the Bard actually wrote.

From the giant crane that hoists everything from crystal chandeliers to pirates’ nets to the goddess Diana, to the sliding metal doors that bang and clang during scene transitions, this is a production that revs and lurches like an engine that could use a little more tuning

But that’s not to say that this re-imagining of Pericles by Wing-Davey and Jim Calder isn’t entertaining or even, at times, quite captivating. The creative team, also including costumer Meg Neville, lighting designer Bradley King, sound designer Jake Rodriguez and composer/music director Marc Gwinn and his three-piece band, have a lot of tricks up their respective sleeves, and they employ a lot of moving parts to dress up a tale that can always use a good dressing up.

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Wing-Davey and Calder have also done some heavy editing, which streamlines this choppy tale into just over two hours. The ensemble of eight plays multiple roles save for David Barlow as the titular prince. They bring a zesty humor to the proceedings, which range from the truly lovely (Pericles brings corn to a starving nation and we watch as their coffers fill with the golden food) to the ribald (Pericles’ wedding night with Thaïsa on an ultra-bouncy bed is a hoot) to the just plain goofy (as knights prepare to joust for the hand of a fair maiden, one of the contenders turns out to be Batman complete with sidekick, Robin).

James Carpenter plays several kings (one horrific, one kindly) with commanding authority and looks particularly good in a robe covered with images of his face. Jessica Kitchens is also effective in contrasting a sweet princess with a deceitful queen (whose gowns have shoulders to be envied by the most fashionable quarterbacks).

Because this play is so full of incident, it helps to have an engaging narrator (Anita Carey) to help stitch the adventures together, and it’s even better to have a narrator with a lilting Northern England accent.

The actors hurtle through the various episodes with verve, though they tend to get upstaged by props and scenery from time to time. It’s hard to compete with a full-on drenching from a storm at sea, especially when a realistic looking baby doll shows up. The contrast between hyper-theatrical, stretch-your-imagination tricks and the occasional human moments can be jarring.

Wing-Davey’s Pericles labors to make the most of a fractured script, but in the end, this take on the tale isn’t nearly as beguiling as California Shakespeare Theater’s 2008 production (read the review here). In that version, director Joel Sass used a storytelling approach (also with eight actors) that turned out to be as enchanting as it was moving.

This production has some dazzle and some heft and definitely some humor, but all that wacky set-up, which is really just an excuse for an impossible, tear-jerking happy ending, is practically for naught. The one thing that’s missing, amid all the storms and anachronisms and hard-working theatrics, is heart.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre continues through May 26 on the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$77 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Titus serves up revenge, blood rare and steaming hot

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And daily the kids’ special is…: James Carpenter (in apron) is Titus in California Shakespeare Theater’s first-ever production of Titus Andronicus. Anna Bullard as Lavinia is pushing the cart, while seated at the table are Stacy Ross as Tamora and Rob Campbell as Saturninus. Below: Carpenter and Bullard deal with unimaginable torture. Photos by Kevin Berne

Director Joel Sass has such a strong, infectious sense of storytelling that he even makes Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, proclaimed to be the Bard’s bloodiest play, enjoyable.

It’s not that the play, which has a single issue on its gory mind – the futility and waste of revenge – isn’t interesting. It’s compelling and hideous at the same time.

But what Sass does for the California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening production of Titus – the first in Cal Shakes’ 37-year history – is heighten the theatricality of the tale, elevate it to grand and glorious storytelling rather than an endlessly horrific parade of one bloody special effect after another.

Of course there’s blood, and lots of it. First we see bloody swords (but not how they got that way). Then it’s a blood-smeared lip from a fight over a woman. Then the slicing and dicing begins in earnest. The blood, it does flow, especially from slit throats.

This is a muscular production of a tough play, mean in spirit and humor. If Shakespeare’s goal is to illuminate the way ego-driven revenge turns life into a cesspit for everyone involved, he certainly succeeds.

But Sass creates a surprisingly beautiful production. At first, the crumbling cement bunker of Emily Greene’s set seems too solid and overwhelming. But then Russell H. Champa’s start playing with the surfaces and shadows of the set, and suddenly the stage can be as menacing or as lovely as Sass needs it to be. There are masked extras, banners fluttering in the chilly summer breeze and some striking costumes (by Paloma H. Young), all in service to imbuing some beauty and striking images into the stream of ugly behavior.

Even the way Sass transitions from one location to another – using moving columns that look like they’re made of rusty metal – can lend moments of grace.

When characters are awful in this play, they’re bone-deep awful. Aaron the Moore (played by Shawn Hamilton) has to be Shakespeare’s most unrepentantly revolting character – the only thing this man regrets is any good deed he might accidentally have committed. He causes deaths and mutilations as a means of entertaining himself.

If he’s at the top of the horrible heap, the power mongers and the sadistic spoiled brats are just underneath. In the first category falls Saturninus (Rob Campbell), Rome’s new emperor and possessor of very funny dirty little chuckle. His new bride is Tamora (Stacy Ross), the queen of the recently vanquished Goths, and though she pretends to be a hot-to-trot new bride, she’s really scheming, Lady Macbeth-style, how she’s going to exact her revenge on all of Rome.

Tamora’s two sons, Demetrius (Chad Deverman) and Chiron (David Mendelsohn) are twisted, beast-like savages whose disgusting fate – probably the most famous aspect of this infrequently produced play – is, it must be admitted, quite dramatically satisfying. And from the looks of the diners on stage, quite tasty.

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The Army of Awful unleashed in the play does its worst (best?) work on Roman hero Titus (the always remarkable James Carpenter) and the members of his family who haven’t already been wiped out by battle duty.

It would be nice if Shakespeare gave us a little more to like about Titus and his clan other than their inherent morality (especially compared to everybody else), but in the end, that’s what defines them and makes us root for them. That morality, though, is hardly an effective shield. The cost of grief and loss and horror takes its toll, especially on Titus.

With the garish, over-done makeup worn by the actors, we’re continually reminded that this is theater at its most grandiose, but such theatricality doesn’t always mask the fact that Shakespeare is really going overboard here. The rape and mutilation of a young woman (the noble Anna Bullard as Lavinia) is especially hard to stomach in an evening’s “entertainment.” When the playwright has Lavinia, whose hands have been cut off and tongue cut out, carry her father’s severed hand in her teeth, you know there’s something more than emphasis on horror going on. Perhaps he’s gotten a little carried away (happily, director Sass keeps the hand tastefully inside a satchel).

It could be dark humor, but after a certain point, all this pretend violence is really not funny. And for the ending to hit home all that horror and gore needs to have added up to something.

In this three-hour production, thankfully, the ending does pack a wallop. The bodies pile up, the horror ebbs, but the cycle continues. As you might expect, the ever-astute Shakespeare didn’t have much faith in mankind to ever end the seemingly nonstop rush of violence and idiocy spawned by revenge.


California Shakespeare Theater’s Titus Andronicus continues through June 26 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station. Tickets are $35-$66. Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information.

Review: `Pericles’

California Shakespeare Theater production opened May 31, 2008, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda

The eight-member cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s Pericles puts on a jousting pageant on stage at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda. Photos by Kevin Berne

Cal Shakes season opens with radiant romp
«««« Rich, rewarding, adventurous

Presented as a gorgeous fairy tale for grown-ups, California Shakespeare Theater’s first show of the season, Pericles, reminds us that in a seemingly horrible world, faith, love and integrity will receive their just reward.

One of those tricky plays labeled “romance,” Pericles might as well be called “kitchen sink Shakespeare” because it includes a little bit of everything: incest, fiery shipwrecks, knightly jousts, swirling romance, assassination attempts, tragic death, magical resurrection, marauding pirates, betrayal and beyond-belief happy ending machinations. Experts quarrel about the exact authorship of the play, especially the first two of the five acts, but the fact is, Pericles is mightily entertaining, especially when directed with flair.

And flair is something director Joel Sass has in great abundance. This Pericles, which is winnowed down to eight actors (and four general ensemble members) playing forty-some roles, is based on the adaptation Sass created for Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre in 2005. All the role switching gives the play a hyper-theatrical feel and helps keep it more in the realm of vibrant storytelling and less in the more emotionally demanding world of realism.

The stage of the Bruns Amphitheater, nestled in the rolling Orinda hills, has rarely been so beautiful. Set designer Melpomene Katakalos gives us a natural world – a tree trunk forms a central arch amid a sandy floor – with crude structures walled in by Persian carpets. Exotic carpets and pillows are strewn about the sand to create a warm, cozy atmosphere for ripping yarns and lusty romance. Russell H. Champa’s lights play with the set the way fireworks play with a Fourth of July sky – they form an extraordinary element in the storytelling here, with their dastardly shadows, warm hues, heroic posturing and near-operatic grandeur.

All of those elements are necessary in the telling of Pericles, the story of the Prince of Tyre (Christopher Kelly), whose life seems to take dramatic turns every time he takes a voyage. First he heads to a kingdom to woo a beautiful princess, but because her father the king is an incestuous letch, that doesn’t work out too well, and Pericles finds himself and his kingdom under attack.

So the handsome prince heads off to a kingdom suffering famine and brings them grain and hope. Returning from that trek, his ship catches fire and sinks. He washes up on the shores of a gentle kingdom and is taken in by kindly fisherman. It just so happens that there’s a knightly tournament going on and that the good-hearted king has a lovely, unmarried daughter. Cue the jousting. From here, the tale takes a more tragic turn, with death, kidnapping, jealousy, murder, forced prostitution and the supernatural all coming strongly into play.

But director Sass and his wonderful octet of actors sail through these bumpy dramatic waters with style. Shawn Hamilton(above) holds the narrative together as Gower, the storytelling poet who sings beautifully and fills in the blanks as the years hurry by over the course of the play’s nearly three hours. Having a narrator helps because it’s a little hard to keep track of this wandering tale.

But that’s another reason Sass’ production works so well – even when the play loses its way or gets tangled in yet another adventure, the stage is gorgeous and there’s always something interesting going on. Raquel M. Barreto’s costumes are lush and beautiful, like something out of 1,001 Nights. She also has a sense of humor. Her fishermen, for instance, look less like people and more like grass huts. And when it’s time for the joust, the knights strap on their horses like clowns. Composer Greg Brosofske lends pomp and romance to an already lyrical story.

The role-shifting actors all shine. Ron Campbell goes from dastardly (as the incestuous king) to dippy (as a fisherman) to equine (as a prancing knight on “horseback“); Delia MacDougall (above, with Kelly) is a robust redhead who wins Pericles’ heart, and then she’s a madam in a fat suit (complete with over-stretched fishnet stockings); Domenique Lozano is a duplicitous queen and an enigmatic sorcerer who has the power to bring the dead back to life; Sarah Nealis is a radiant Marina, daughter of Pericles; Alex Morf plays a series of bad guys until his final bad guy, in the face of overwhelming virtue, turns good; and Danny Scheie plays several good, noble men and one feisty hunchback.

Is the play nonsensical and outlandish? Absolutely. Is it incredibly moving at its tearjerking conclusion when all is set right, and noble Pericles, after all his misfortunes, is given what he most wanted in the world? Oh, yes, and then some. Fairytale is fantasy, and we want to believe some of that fantastical world, of outrageous wrong and unwavering right, can rub off on our world. We want to believe in happy endings so that in our daily dealings with shipwrecks, bawds and nefarious kings, we, like Pericles, can take heart in an ending of the happy, tear-stained variety.

Pericles continues through June 22 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on the Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit in Orinda (there’s a free shuttle to and from the theater and the Orinda BART station). Tickets are $32-$62 (with student, senior and under 30 discounts). Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information.