ORLANDO — It would be a mistake, I think, to call “The Adventures Of Pericles” the anti-Shakespeare play for the masses, since that implies that the Bard’s work is something worth jettisoning for something else.
It’s perhaps more accurate to say that this play, in the right hands, is a rollicking adventure saga that shatters the (often negative) stereotypes that some audiences have about what a play by Shakespeare will be like — you know, people standing on a stage and not doing much except reading lines that are hard to decipher. If you assume you’re one of those audience members who feels more obligated to like Shakespeare plays (you know, your intellectual friends all love to toss out lines they’ve memorized, making you feel a tad bit inadequate over coffee hour), then this is the play that proves Shakespeare truly did write for the mass audiences.
And with its shipwrecks and our hero being tossed about in the ocean, washed ashore on islands that promise more intrigue, it’s not hard to see that this play could easily have served as the original inspiration for everything from “Treasure Island” and “Captain Blood” to Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” and even the likes of “Survivor” and “Naked and Afraid.” Shakespeare understood we all love a good case of treachery and intrigue, and the rollicking excitement of a heroic escape.
Billed by Orlando Shakespeare Theater as a “modern verse translation” of the play (which runs through March 26),it’s being presented in partnership with Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare.”
The “Play on!” project consists of 36 playwrights commissioned to translate 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English, with the goal of creating an increased understanding and connection to Shakespeare’s plays. In this case, “Pericles” was developed by playwright and translator Ellen McLaughlin.
Orlando Shakes is more than up to the task of taking McLaughlin’s version and injecting a tremendous amount of vibrancy into it — humor, action, suspense, and political intrigue all come into play here, with very exciting results.
From the start of the play, Pericles, the Prince of Tyre (in a first rate performance by John Keller), begins his adventure by, of all things, solving a puzzle.
The play opens in the court of Antiochus, king of Antioch. The king has offered the hand of his daughter to any man who answers his riddle, but warns that those who fail will die. Upon hearing the riddle, Pericles instantly understands its meaning — that Antiochus is engaged in an incestuous relationship with his daughter.
But he also knows full well that if he reveals the truth, he’ll likely get killed — although ironically, if he answers incorrectly, same outcome. To avoid that outcome, Pericles asks for more time to ponder the riddle’s meaning, and Antiochus grants him forty days — then sends an assassin after him.
Pericles flees the city, but knowing he is being hunted, he sails to Tarsus, where he finds a city devastated by famine and generously gives the city’s governor grain from his ship, then continues on …. where a storm wrecks Pericles’ ship and washes him up on the shores of Pentapolis. He is rescued by a group of poor fishermen …. and this is also where a beautiful princess comes into the story …
Without Shakespeare’s name on the play, it all sounds like a fairly contemporary action/adventure plot, doesn’t it? It helps that the director, Jim Helsinger, keeps everything moving at a brisk pace and does a marvelous job of showing Pericles lost as sea, the waves thrashing him all around. The sound, lighting and visual effects are masterfully done.
Keller is excellent in the title role, making “The Adventures of Pericles” one of the most engaging Shakespeare productions that the Shakes has done in a while. It’s the ideal production for anyone who wants a introduction, or perhaps lapsed reintroduction, to Shakespeare’s works.
Tickets to “The Adventures of Pericles” are available by calling 407-447-1700, Ext. 1, visiting Orlando Shakespeare Theater, or in person at the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center at 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando.
Upcoming performances are March 18 at 7:30 p.m., and starting at 6 that night, check out “The Adventures of Pericles: Shakespeare Alive!” when Orlando Shakes’ youth program allows audiences to meet the program’s educators for an interactive Shakespeare workshop prior to the evening’s $25 Under 35 performance.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..