Fourteen young storytellers onstage for six hours tell the stories of Pericles and Cymbeline through acting, songs, music, dance, puppetry, and gymnastics. The entire theatre, including aisles and seats, is covered in white fabric to represent a blank canvas for the at-times improvisational storytelling. Ingeniously conceived, expertly executed, and played with abundant energy and humor.
Adapted and directed by Charles Newell. Set by John Cuthbert. Costumes by Linda Roethke. Lights by Michelle Habeck. Sound by Joshua Horvath.
Guy Adkins (Cornelius/Pericles), Lance Stuart Baker (Posthumus/Simonides), Kati Brazda (Helen/Cerimon), McKinley Carter (Pisanio/Thaisa), Chaon Cross (Caius Lucius/ Marina), Will Dickerson (Cymbeline/Boult), Neil Friedman (Belarius/Helicanus), Kate Fry (Imogen/Dionyza), Warren Jackson (Philario/Thaliard), Timothy Edward Kane (Cloten/ Cleon), Kymberly Mellen (Queen/Antiochus' Daughter), Braden Moran (Arviragus), Chuck Stubbings (Guiderius/Lysimachus), Jay Whittaker (Iachimo/Antiochus).
Charles Newell, artistic director of Chicago's Court Theatre, adapts and directs a repertory production of Shakespeare's late romances, with Part I Cymbeline and Part II Pericles. Newell employs an ensemble cast of fourteen performers who play all roles in both plays of The Romance Cycle, serving more as traditional "storytellers" - with song, music, dance, shadow puppetry, and gymnastics as well as acting - than as modern stage actors.
Cream carpeting covers the Court stage and aisles, and the 250 seats in the audience are swathed in white cotton sheets, giving the auditorium the "blank canvas: appearance Newell sought for the fanciful stories. Audiences, requested to remove their shoes and store them in lobby bins for comfort as well as for the sake of the cleanliness of the blank canvas, can also partake in a catered meal between the performances of the two plays, enjoying pre-ordered Greek food in their seats or right onstage. The touch delights, adding to the Mediterranean setting and the old-time storytelling atmosphere, and the audiences - for the most part seeing both performances back to back - seem to appreciate both the concept and the execution.
Even the costumes are of a white, cream and tan palette, loose-fitting by design for performers' comfort rather than for characterization. Upstage, fourteen dressing room chairs face away from the audience, each with a lit candle, a hanging mirror, and spot lights underneath and hanging overhead. Coats, hats, weapons, and assorted props hang from hooks along the upstage wall. Drum kits flank the stage, partially concealed.
A "places call!" indicates to both audience and performers that the performance is about to begin, and the house lights linger for several scenes, so the spectators remain part of the story and in the same lighting as the storytellers. The cast leads an audience sing-along - "To sing a song!" - playing triangles, pipes, reeds, drums, and tambourines. The performers take seats among the patrons, offer instruments for audience members to play, and wave and clap along, before one, serving as Chorus, introduces the characters from Cymbeline.
The young storytellers are appealing in appearance and energetic in their approach to ensemble performance. During 2.2 of Cymbeline, a dozen storytellers bring candles and sit along the side of the stage as Imogen drowses in her bedchamber. As the lights dim, some play chimes as Iachimo emerges from the trunk that will double as Thaisa's casket in Part II. The onstage chorus provides sound effects, exhaling audibly as Iachimo slithers like a snake across the stage along a sheet toward the sleeping heroine. They sharply inhale both at the kiss and at his peek of her breast, then gasp when he cries, "a mole!" Similarly, in 1.1 of Pericles, each storyteller alternates speaking a line as a chorus version of the narrator Gower. In dumb show, a "female heir" emerges crawling from between a standing woman's legs, and the standing chorus all turn away and shield their eyes from Antiochus and his daughter: "bad child; worse father." Former contestants for the daughter's hand in marriage are "corpses" held upright by waiting women, their heads lolling, tongues out, and eyes rolling. When Pericles is banished, the chorus turn their backs to him.
Newell makes physical demands upon the performers of The Romance Cycle, who play both Cymbeline and Pericles in succession three evenings a week (playing a single Part each Friday), and are onstage for nearly six hours. Physical intensity defines the performances. For example, Belarius' "sons" in Cymbeline are ape-like wild men, swinging from light standards behind the audience, leaping into empty seats to startle patrons, and walking hunched forward using their knuckles for balance. They paw at themselves, crouch at Belarius' feet, and race off again and again through the audience. In Pericles, the hero makes a dramatic exit on horseback in 2.1: he jumps upon one man's shoulders, and another man stands in front and whinnies like a horse while kicking his knees high in the air, while a girl bends behind them, swinging a towel backward between her legs like a horse's tail. The 2.2 contest between the knights features introductions with handstands, cartwheels, and somersaults, then a six-knight pillow fight and an extended tug-of-war sequence, with Pericles the last man standing. The ensuing Soldier's Dance features even more tumbles, leaps and gymnastics.
The director infuses both productions with ample bits of humor. Timothy Edward Kane's smug villain, Cloten, pouts to the audience in 1.4 of Cymbeline, flings croquet balls in a fit of pique during 2.1, then serenades Imogen with a guitarist and half a dozen backup singers in 2.3. He blows a kiss to himself when the chorus presents him with a 3.5 wall of mirrors, and when he pursues the fleet-footed Guiderius through the audience in 4.2, racing up and down aisle after aisle, Guiderius easily keeps his distance by running the opposite way up the closest aisle. Kane draws a hearty laugh when his frustrated Cloten pauses, hands on hips, and whines, "Stop it." And the diminutive King Cymbeline, in an apparent attempt to make a more regal appearance, wears absurdly high platform shoes that seem a threat to balance.
2.1 of Pericles plays as something like improvised vaudeville, with Kane now leading the fishermen who discover the shipwrecked Pericles. They wear caps, smoke pipes, and fold their arms, then use spray bottles to simulate rainfall, and one asks an audience member to hold onto a tarp so she can pull on the other end as if hauling in fishing nets. Kane must shout, "Get a hat, we're fishermen!" to some of the storytellers, and when they ad lib and clown to excess, spraying each other with water, he scolds them with "Focus!" The entire sequence seems fun for the performers, who spray water straight in the air to simulate a whale's blowhole ("toot toot!") and at the exclamation "how he bounc'd and tumbled!" they somersault and cartwheel and are accompanied by a drum kit "rim shot" to punctuate the joke. Moments later, in 2.3, a servant sporting half a carved watermelon as a chef's hat serves the lounging combatants chunks of the fruit, and when they are informed in 2.5 of the King's daughter's twelve months of abstinence, they shout "Say what!" then indicate they will "take our leaves" by each exiting with a green leaf held high.
Newell's ingenuity creates an entertaining spirit, with Pericles receiving a dash more humor, speed, and energy. After the 3.1 dumb show, a bright red light hits Antiochus and his daughter, who crumple with screams like the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz, and then Guy Adkins' acrobatic hero is seen again upon troubled seas. He lies upon a large loop of rope hung from the fly like an enormous swing, and he surges far out over the audience and back again. Amid drum beats and cymbal crashes, and lit in lightning-like strobe flashes, Adkins' Pericles spins and twists upon the rope, still swinging out over the audience, in a stunning evocation of a shipwreck. Moments later he hunkers at center stage, embracing Thaisa, both of them lit beneath a single, quivering spot light. An upstage storyteller uses a bow across guitar strings to create an ominous hum for the scene that at its conclusion marks Pericles' intermission. Newell presents the Roman-Briton battle of Cymbeline 4.3 with similar ingenuity, in an almost ritualistic dance. Whistles chirp and drums beat, and the upstage storytellers pound their chairs on the stage, take a step forward, then pound the chairs again, edging toward the audience like an approaching army. At center stage, they wield staffs fixed with golden metal masks that represent groups of Roman soldiers, and when a storyteller strikes the stage with the staff, the masks rattle like musical cymbals. Lance Stuart Baker's Posthumus "saves" Belarius' sons by helping each man stand as a staff looms over them.
The Romance Cycle presents interesting challenges, including improvisation, audience interaction, and song, for Newell's ensemble. In Cymbeline's 2.5, Baker struts downstage as the supposedly cuckolded Posthumus, stabbing his fingers at women in the audience and accusing them of lying, flattering, and deceiving. As Simonides in Pericles' 2.5, Baker swirls his kingly robes like a villain's cape, and he mugs, winks, and shrugs to the audience as he "tests" the virtuous hero. In 1.3, the assassin Thaliard crawls along the front of the stage with a pistol, then sits to confide his misgivings to patrons in the first rows, and in 2.1 Pericles speaks to an attractive young woman in the audience as if she is Fortune herself, so when his armor is found by the fishermen, he must rush back to her to kiss her hands. The storytellers play "wild card" improv with the 4.1 pirates scene in Pericles: all the performers have the option during each performance to rest or to join in the campy ("arrrr!") pirate attack with a bandana, an eye patch, and a cutlass. Finally, in 5.1 of Cymbeline, Posthumus sleeps before a billowing canvas sail upon which the apparitions speak to him in a shadow play, and moments later he kneels before the looming silhouette face of Jupiter himself. And the bawdy house scenes from Pericles are played with a shocking gender switch, the Bawd played by a hairy-legged man in a mini-dress and red-high heels, and Pandar portrayed by a cigar-wielding woman who sits wide-legged at the edge of the stage.
Newell also takes advantage of the musical abilities of the ensemble, and original music was composed for the romantic songs, while retaining Shakespeare's lyrics. In 3.2 of Cymbeline, the cast pounds percussion on the bottoms of plastic buckets while standing within the audience, and Imogen reads her letter in Milford Haven while a storyteller sadly plays a harmonica behind her. When Imogen has apparently died, Belarius' sons bring her onstage upon a canvas, and together they sing "Fear no more the heat o' th' sun." In Pericles, the vaudeville fishermen sing "Pentapolis!" to announce their home, and in 4.3, musical theatre veteran Kate Fry - who had played Imogen earlier - now plays the evil Dionyza and sheds a crocodile tear while singing a beautiful song for Marina.
All the ingenuity, humor, and music and song culminate - after six hours of The Romance Cycle - in the poignant 5.1 of Pericles. Adkins' sympathetic hero lies in fetal position at stage left, his head wrapped in a long black cloth to represent his unshorn hair. Marina and a maid play a haunting melody on a xylophone at stage right, before the long-lost daughter approaches her father. With tears streaming down his face, Adkins turns to Thaisa, singing to him from behind an upraised sail at far stage left, silhouetted against a shimmering yellow light. The moving family reunion is a beautiful culmination - "this great sea of joys" - of an ambitious and entertaining effort that is a triumph of conception and execution.
Note: A version of this article was edited and published in Shakespeare Bulletin, Vol.21, No.3, Fall 2003.