A Series of Encouraging Events

Yesterday some of the Cal Shakes staff had the pleasure of enjoying a “brown-bag lunch” with Joel Sass, the director of Pericles, to be the first production of our 08 season. Although it was BYOBBL*, there were other rewards.

When the 2008 season was announced last September, the selection of opener Pericles caused quite a bit of confusion. I, for one, thought it was by Ovid or Aeschylus. (Heaven forgive me–I went to public schools.) Platoon Captain Susie assured me it was one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known comedies. Having recently acquired the charming Tales from Shakespeare at a yard sale, I plowed through Pericles, Prince of Tyre, hoping to start brainstorming themes for the next season.

Well, Charles and Mary Lamb’s take on the tale (a narrative retelling for early 20th-century schoolchildren) is no comedy–if anything, it’s a relentless tragedy with an inappropriately joyful denoument. Even less comedic is the grown-up version, bookended as it is with incest and prostitution. That’s why they call it one of the “problems plays,” I thought–not a romance, not a history, not a comedy. When I described the plot to the Bullpen, Paul remarked that it sounded like a Lemony Snicket book** with a happy ending; in fact, when we were about to start putting together the season brochure a few months later, and still didn’t have a theme for the season as a whole, I actually spent some time looking for synonyms for A Series of Unfortunate Events.

But finally, at lunch this week, the issue was clarified significantly by Joel Sass. Comparing Pericles to the fairy tales he took refuge in as a child, the director–who first rose to prominence in his home city of Minneapolis with a live take on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls–originally mounted the show at the Guthrie Theater, eagerly accepting the challenge of using only eight actors to portray the story’s many characters. Not only was he used to that with his own small company, Mary Worth, but Sass found the play uniquely suited to a small cast, as there are just three main characters whose lives we follow, often without one another, and surrounded by a shifting sea of new personalities.

And as for Susie’s assertion that Pericles is a comedy? There is great humor in this tale–humor that’s necessary to its charm. “In the most preposterous stories,” Sass insists, “there is truth.” But this truth can be hard to see, which is why these kinds of Shakespeare stories are not often performed. “The problem plays,” explained Sass, “lend themselves to imaginative treatment because there’s less baggage and expectation.” It’s true–everyone knows what happens in Romeo and Juliet and in Macbeth. But who knows what happens to Pericles when he flees Tyre? And who knows what, exactly, the happy ending will be?

“This was written at a time when people were hungry for miracles,” says Sass. “And when does that go out of style?”

Also stylish is adventuresome, comic-book-style storytelling, which Pericles can certainly profit from–the director insists this tale must be told with “velocity.” My affection for comics has already been documented in this blog, and I’ve pitched the idea of having Pericles plot synopsis be done in illustrated strip form, running along the bottom of the program’s dramaturgy pages. (Wish me luck with that one.) But, according to Sass, the play is literary, too, and seriously meta, with many characters reading letters and telling stories aloud to one another and to the audience–”It’s a nakedly self-acknowledging piece.”

And lest you think that you’ll see the same show that audiences saw in Minneapolis some years back, fear not. As always, our unique outdoor venue will present both inspiration and challenge; Sass plans on taking the pieces that comprised the original score composed for the Guthrie production, and reshaping it to best reflect our rolling land and open sky. And the director’s mighty impressed by our local talent, telling the folks assembled at lunch that he plans to use very few, if any, visiting actors: “I believe in sustainable agriculture.”

And so, as today’s auditions wind down for the day (I just saw some of our Associate Artists leaving the building) I can feel the excitement build… never mind Lemony Snicket. Bring on the Sass.

*Lunch was not provided.
**For comparison, I present the opening to the fifth book in the “Unfortunate Events” series, The Austere Academy:
“Dear Reader,
If you are looking for a story about cheerful youngsters spending a jolly time at boarding school, look elsewhere. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire arc intelligent and resourceful children, and you might expect that they would do very well at school. Don’t. For the Baudelaires, school turns out to be another miserable episode in their unlucky lives.
Truth be told, within the chapters that make up this dreadful story, the children will face snapping crabs, strict punishments, dripping fungus, comprehensive exams, violin recitals, S.O.R.E., and the metric system.”

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