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Four-Part Harmony: “Pericles” reviewed

If you’re going to take a frisky story-theatre approach to a Shakespeare play, Pericles is the one to choose. A frank potboiler, it’s a ten-car pileup of wild twists that make such the bizarrely conceived Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale look like kitchen sink naturalism. Punctuated by so many shipwrecks that it could be titled Don’t Go Near the Water, the action includes an incest scandal, a band of pirates, a “dead” heroine who stirs in her coffin, a riddle with fatal consequences for wrong answers, a scheming villainess, and a virtuous ingenue who, when kidnapped and ensconced in a brothel, ends up reforming the regular customers. A dozen episodes on Netflix wouldn’t be enough to untangle this bramble bush of a plot.

Indeed, so messy is Pericles that a director can either throw up their hands in despair or aggressively wrangle it. A few years ago, at Theatre for a New Audience, Trevor Nunn staged it as a rip-roaring adventure story, logic be damned, finding an emotional center in the separation and reunion of the title character; Thaisa, his seemingly doomed wife; and Marina; their long-lost daughter. Like that production, Ben Steinfeld’s staging at CSC incorporates material from The Painful Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, a 1608 novel by George Wilkins, Shakespeare’s friend and possible collaborator. Also, many of the speeches belonging to Gower, the show’s narrator, have been slimmed down and/or turned into songs. A play that can run two hours and forty-five minutes clocks in at less than two. Call it the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version.

Nothing wrong with that: The intention here is to have a good time with the sprawling narrative and, on a certain level, Steinfeld’s staging delivers that. The production’s biggest innovation is to have four different company members successively take on the title role, a clever way of admitting that Pericles seems like a different person at different times. But, as is so often the case with this company, I wish everyone would pay more attention to the text; too many of the actors handle iambic pentameter in a plodding fashion, hitting each stress point in each line with the same force, or breaking up lines, thereby undermining their meanings. The idea, I guess, is to make the language sound more accessible and contemporary, but the opposite effect is achieved; as a group, they are not adept with the technical demands of dramatic verse.

This is especially strange because several company members are such charismatic presences. Steinfeld is disarmingly likable as Gower and Jessie Austrian, the company’s most accomplished talent, is lovely as the miraculously revived Thaisa and as the account-keeping bawd whose business is put in danger when Marina starts talking the customers out of their lustful impulses; the latter is played by Emily Young, who convincingly sets her would-be ravishers on the road to repentance. Of the four Pericles, Devin E. Haqq is the most affecting, bringing some genuine anguish to the role.

No set designer is credited for a production that employs little more than a bunch of wooden crates and an upstage muslin drop with three entries cut out. However, Ashley Rose Horton’s costumes plausibly pass for everyday wear in a mythical version of the Middle East, and some are beautifully detailed. The delicate colors in Mextly Couzin’s lighting add a fantastical touch to the proceedings.