Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Thrilling Adventure Hour and a Half

Good morning/afternoon/evening/sleepless midnight hours, whenever you do your independent-theatre-blog-reading. Its Tech Week here at the We Happy Factory, which means while everybody everybody else in the company works very hard to iron out any kinks in the production and make sure the play is the best it can be, I sit in a corner of the theatre and hope that someone has a historical or textual question that I can answer. I like to use this time to put together a blog post so it feels like I’m accomplishing something to draw upon the creative energy in the room and distill it to infuse some enthusiasm into my dry and staid prose.

Pericles has a lot going on. More than most of Shakespeare’s plays, more even than the other Romances. While he didn’t strictly obey the Aristotelian Unities of Time or Place, generally Shakespeare constrained himself to a handful of fairly nearby locations (sometimes as small as a single castle, city, or island) and a relatively brief timeline, not more than a few days or weeks. Some of them are a little more spread out, such as the Histories (and Lear) set in France and England, and sometimes, like Hamlet, their sense of time is more ambiguous. But none of them range as far afield and with so many different settings as in Pericles, not even Julius Caesar or Winter’s Tale, and only Winter’s Tale features such a tremendous time-warp in the middle of the play.

Time Warp

Its about time we did another Time Warp. From Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975.

That’s because Shakespeare was drawing on an ancient and well-pedigreed storytelling tradition when he wrote this play, a genre he otherwise avoided. Pericles is, to my mind, Shakespeare dipping his toes into what I like to think of as the Fantastic Adventure story. These stories are typified by a young hero either travelling by himself or being separated from his companions, encountering fantastic and mysterious circumstances, and triumphing over them. Repeat as needed. Pericles spends the play wandering the Mediterranean and searching for glory, fleeing villainous monarchs, rescuing cities, miraculously escaping storms, mourning…He fits the literal archetype of the Adventurer.

Arguably the first and most famous Fantastic Adventure, and the one which shares the most in common with our story, is Homer’s Odyssey. As you all doubtless know, this is the story of Odysseus’ ten-year journey from the Trojan War to his home in Ithaca, and the trials and adventures he encounters along the way. Relevant for OUR interests, Odysseus too finds himself at the mercy of the divine, aided by Athena and opposed by Poseidon. Pericles’ adventures may be less fantastical than Odysseus’, he doesn’t blind any cyclopes or tie himself to the mast to hear the song of the sirens, but the two of them would be hard-pressed to determine whose tribulations were more punishing before they were reunited with their families.

1501_ 044

The Blinding of Polyphemus, by Pellegrino Tibaldi, 1550-1551

The Odyssey, the Aeneid, and other similar Classical stories set the stage for (or, more likely, revealed parallel cultural evolution in) Celtic stories such as the legends of Cuchulainn and Beowulf and King Arthur, or Arabic stories like Sinbad the Sailor in the Thousand and One Nights. This introduces a minor complication to my constructed through-line of the adventure story, in that the earlier Classical stories I cited were singular and self-contained, while the medieval ones are looser. The Odyssey is one continuous story with a beginning, ending, and continual forward progress in between, while Arthur or Robin Hood or Sinbad stories can be read out of order and independent of each other, having introduced and resolved their problem within the same story. But I would argue that the older Classical stories, and our own example Pericles, are also more or less episodic. While they are all marching towards a coherent goal (reunification with family, escaping Antiochan assassins, founding of Rome, etc), each of their individual adventures happens in a vacuum, and the accompanying stories can be told without any more backstory than “Pericles discovered himself shipwrecked”. The more you know about the character the better you’ll understand his actions, just like the more stories you’ve read featuring Gawayne or Alan-a-dale the better handle you’ll have on them, but the stories themselves are designed to be enjoyable without any context.

Alan_A_Dale

Alan-a-dale from Disney’s Robin Hood (1973). I will never pass up an opportunity to include a picture from this movie in the blog.

We can trace this kind of story all the way to the 20th century, and one of my all-time favorite genres; the pulp adventure story. It is really here that we see the pinnacle of the Fantastic Adventure take hold, embodied by characters like Tarzan, Solomon Kane, and Conan. These stories are utterly episodic; consequences seldom carry over from adventure to adventure, new allies and enemies alike are killed by the end of the story, and the hero finds himself in the exact situation he was in at the beginning. Looking forward and expanding your definitions a bit you can see this tradition continued in the original Star Trek, where no story lasted longer than two episodes. Clearly the Fantastic Adventure has got some legs.

James T Kirk

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, from Star Trek (1966-1969)

‘Why does this matter?’, I can hear you asking. ‘What’s so important about Pericles being an adventure story that you felt the need to say a thousand words about it at us?’ Aside from that I think it’s super neat to be able to trace a genre from the fires of a Greek basileus or Saxon mead-hall, through the Middle Ages, across the boards of the Globe Theatre, all the way to Conan the Cimmerian and Captain Kirk, it represents an unusual departure in form from Shakespeare’s usual style. Unlike Shakespeare’s other plays, which create a single problem which is resolved by the end of the play, Pericles allows the audience to accompany the protagonist as he encounters and solves multiple problems. [Stay tuned later in the week for a potential reason this play is conceptually unique in Shakespeare’s canon -KH] We get to see our hero deal with a number of different situations, romantic, tragic, comic, and absurd, before the story concludes. We have a chance to get to know Pericles better than any other Shakespearean character, because we see more of his life than anyone else.

If YOU’D like to get to know Pericles better, your chance is coming soon! Tickets are on sale NOW and performances begin this Wednesday the 16th! I’ll be there, you should be too! Won’t you come on an adventure with us?

The Winter’s Tale: Putting the “Few” in We Happy Few

Well, hello again, adoring fans.  Fancy seeing you here, on our blog, of all places.  It’s still me, your handsome, clever and oh-so-humble production manager Keith Hock, with another blog entry, just in time for our second weekend of shows.  After our opening night last Friday I was sat in front of a computer and told if I didn’t write another post by the next weekend I would be fired realized that this show’s aggressive double-casting gave me a wonderful opening to put together another blog post to share with you all.

Surely some of you, as you left our shows last weekend, had wondered why we would take a play with a cast of 18 named characters and innumerable Guards, Lords, Ladies, Mariners, Gaolers, Shepherdesses, Satyrs, etc., and attempt to put it on with only six people.  And doubtless you would cast your mind back to our previous shows (as I have no doubt you are all long-time fans and have seen all of our performances) and you would be struck! astounded! to realize that, why, we’ve never had more than eight actors in a show!  How can such a thing be?  Well, don’t you all worry your pretty little heads, I’d be more than happy to assuage your fears and give you all a peek behind the dramaturgical veil as to how, and, more importantly, why We Happy Few puts on plays with so few actors. (There’s some arts-management reasons that I’ll go into as well, but that’s not NEARLY as sexy as the phrase ‘dramaturgical veil’).

As you have all noticed, in the narrative I have constructed to frame this blog posting, all of our shows have been notoriously light on actors.  Our last three shows, Duchess of Malfi, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest, all had only eight actors, while our debut, Hamlet, tied Winter’s Tale with six!  For reference, going on their Dramatis Personae pages, those shows called for 15 (Duchess), 20 (R&J), 12 (Tempest), and an astounding 22 (Hamlet) named characters*, not to mention anywhere from a magical island to an entire vendetta-fueled city full of supernumeraries.  The Tempest made up for its relatively light 12 characters with a veritable brugh’s worth of fairies, spirits, nymphs and reapers to fill the stage.  We very cleverly sidestepped that issue by turning all of those fairies into Ariel, and then also casting everyone in the show who wasn’t Prospero as Ariel, but how do we deal with the apparent 45-person cast list that Shakespeare [or Webster] has presented us with?
*I say ‘named’ characters but I’m also counting significant characters.  In Hamlet, the gravediggers, the head player, and the priest are all nameless, but since they play substantial roles in their respective scenes (more important than some with actual names, as you’ll see below) they all got counted in my census.

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Background L-R: Josh Adams, Britt Duff, Scott Gaines.  Foreground: Andrew Keller

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Background L-R: Josh Adams, Britt Duff, Scott Gaines. Foreground: Andrew Keller

The answer is we don’t, neither us nor pretty much any other theatre company in the world.  As cultured citizens of the world I am sure you all go to see plenty of plays that AREN’T We Happy Few-produced, and I’m equally sure that you’ve noticed that the actor bio sections of the programs aren’t 20 pages long and filled with Servants, Soldiers and Guards.  There’s a reason for that.  Did you remember that there was a character named Fortinbras in Hamlet?  What about Voltimand, or Cornelius?  Sometimes we realize that a character doesn’t need to be there, or a scene goes on a little too long, so we do some cutting and combining.  Instead of Reynaldo (Polonius’ servant, apparently) and a whole crowd of other, nameless servants jostling around in Elsinore, we just use Reynaldo, whenever a servant appears.  Or we decide that the play can survive without servants, and we ditch them altogether.  I’ve seen full-stage, big budget productions of Romeo and Juliet that just completely did away with Paris.  Our own Hamlet excised Horatio, and nobody missed him.  It’s not that these characters and scenes don’t serve a purpose in the text, Shakespeare did little needlessly (I’m ignoring Timon of Athens when I say that).  They just don’t serve a purpose in the story we’re telling, so off they go.

All theatre companies do it, but we have to do it more than most.  As a predominantly Fringe company, with a stated focus on creating “stripped down, small cast, ensemble productions”, our timing and manpower is intentionally limited.  We bring all of our shows down to 90 minutes by the time we open, and we do it by scrapping every beat, every moment, every character, that isn’t completely necessary to telling the story we want to tell.  Sometimes that can hurt.  Did you know there was a surprisingly prominent Duke Ferdinand/werewolf subplot in Duchess of Malfi?  I did, because I watched us gradually pare it away in rehearsal as we fought to get to 90 minutes.  In addition to being crazy badass, it was powerful character development for Ferdinand, who loses his already-tenuous connection with his humanity after the barbarism of his parricide and talks himself into the belief that he is a wolf.  We were all sad to see it go, but we knew that it was a few minutes worth of dialogue we couldn’t afford to tell the story we needed to tell.

Don't judge me.

Greater Werewolf, 5th Edition, Magic: The Gathering. Art by Dennis Detwiller

Cutting characters and scenes is all well, and it certainly helps us lower the cast requirements (which you’ll recall is the point I’m supposed to be making in this post), but it only gets us so far.  What we really do to cut that down is double-cast, have one actor play two (or more) roles.  This buys you a lot of space, as many of your actors in smaller roles can serve double duty.  Sampson done being in the play after Act I?  Stuff him in a monk’s robe and he’s Friar John!  All your sailors drowned at the beginning when Prospero brought forth the storm?  (they didn’t, re-read Act I Scene 2, but they’re never seen again so its the same thing)  Roll them in glitter and now they’re spirits!

Combining these two things, cutting and double-casting, can usually get you to somewhere around 12-15 actors.  That’s pretty good, and it works for other companies, but it’s not enough for us.  We take our double-casting a step or two further than a lot of other companies.  Earlier I mentioned that the actors that are double cast are usually the non-leading parts, because they have fewer lines and are in fewer scenes; their casting is a matter of convenience.  OUR double-casting is deliberate and ubiquitous, especially under the guidance of director/producer/founder/superhero, Hannah Todd.  In her productions the only characters we have NOT double-cast were Prospero in The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet in… Romeo and Juliet; Prospero to emphasize his control over everything that happens on the island, and the star-crossed teens to point out their solitude as the only lovers in a city full of hate (My astute readers will argue that Hamlet was single-cast as well, but our Hamlet also spoke the lines for his dead father.  Whether or not the ghost should count as a character in OUR interpretation is up for debate, but since he had two character’s worth of lines he counts as double-cast for my purposes).  Everyone else has been at least double cast, and most of those casting choices have been meaningful, not just a consequence of what scenes happened when.  It was no coincidence that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were also Ophelia and Laertes, or that Tybalt was also the Nurse, or that, as I mentioned earlier, everyone but Prospero, even Caliban, was Ariel.  These choices serve a greater thematic purpose and say more about the show than simply what actors are available for those scenes.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 Hamlet. Left-Right: Raven Bonniwell (Ophelia), Billy Finn (Laertes).

From We Happy Few's 2012 Hamlet.  Left-Right: Billy Finn, Chris Genebach, Raven Bonniwell.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 Hamlet. Left-Right: Billy Finn (Rosencrantz or Guildenstern), Chris Genebach (Hamlet), Raven Bonniwell (the other one).

But we have attained more saturation with our multi-casting for The Winter’s Tale than with any show before.  If you saw it already, surely you realized how significant it was that Kerry McGee embody both Mamillius and his sister Perdita, or that Kiernan McGowan play both the doomed Antigonus and the servant who relayed his demise, or that Raven Bonniwell portray both Hermione and Camillo’s mirrored punishments.  How fitting that Nathan Bennett give us both the prideful, paranoid, appearance-obsessed Leontes and the ludicrous cross-dressing confluence of Dorcas and Mopsa.  How touching that Katy Carkuff deliver the baby Perdita as Paulina, and raise it across the sea as the Shepherd.  And how truly remarkable that William Vaughan’s nameless lord (guard?) who comforts Mamillius in the beginning, turn out to be none other than Perdita’s love Florizel at the end.*  I told you last time there was magic to be had by the double handful in the Romances, you just have to know where to look.

*If you didn’t realize how all this was to be significant, or haven’t seen it yet and have no idea what I’m talking about, tickets are still available for all our upcoming shows here!

The Winter’s Tale: What Makes A Romance?

Hi, everybody!

::Await obligatory ‘Hi, Dr. Nick!’ callback.::

My name is Keith Hock and I am the production manager and technical director for your favorite Capitol Fringe company, We Happy Few Productions!  We’re about halfway through the rehearsal process for our upcoming presentation of The Winter’s Tale, and while our Periscope videos (accessible through twitter, if you follow us) have done a great job of introducing you to the creative process behind the making of the show, they haven’t really delved too deeply into what this show is and why we would choose to do it.  So at our last production meeting I drew the short straw and got roped into willingly and totally without coercion volunteered to put together a brief breakdown of how The Winter’s Tale fits into Shakespeare’s bibliography and our own ethos.

The table of contents, as it were, of the First Folio

The table of contents, as it were, of the First Folio

The shows that We Happy Few has done, to date, have been Hamlet, The Tempest, Romeo & Juliet, The Duchess of Malfi and, soon, The Winter’s Tale.  Of these plays, three are classified as Tragedies; Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, and The Duchess of Malfi, and the other two as Romances (Duchess is anomalous in this list because it was written by Webster, not Shakespeare, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more tragic play than The Duchess of Malfi.  For more information about THAT show please look back into our archives and read the posts by my blogging predecessor, the inimitable Alan Katz).  When we began our career with Hamlet we established our love of tragedies, the darker and more brooding the better; this led us in turn to the hormone-laden blood feud of Romeo & Juliet and the old-school revenge tragedy of The Duchess of Malfi (fun fact: revenge tragedies are also known as Tragedies of Blood!  This should come as no surprise to anyone who saw Duchess last summer).  So how do we reconcile the blood and hate of these tragedies with what you suspect to be the tedious, cloying will-they/won’t-they love story that the name “Romance” suggests?

As You Like It Wedding

The wedding scene in As You Like It. Not the sort of romance we’re doing this summer. (Painting by Richard Russell)

Fortunately for us, unless you were hoping for a sappy rom-com story (in which case, get the hell off my blog), the term “Romance” in this context does not imply what we generally think of as romantic; the closest Shakespeare comes to modern rom-com style love stories are his Comedies, named so not because they’re funny (although they are) but because they end well and leave the audience feeling happy; they also deal with love stories and almost exclusively end with AT LEAST one marriage.  Historically the Romances were grouped into either the Tragedies or Comedies more or less at the whims of their readers; The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale were classified as Comedies while Cymbeline and Pericles were classified as Tragedies.  These do not precisely fit for either category; while there is blood and death to be had in both Pericles and Cymbeline, both title characters make it out of the play alive, a major no-no for Tragedies, and neither of them are brought low by some character flaw.  Likewise, there are love stories in both The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, as well as Cymbeline and Pericles for that matter, but in neither of them are they the focus of the plot.  So these four Romance plays do not share the traditional markings of either Shakespeare’s Tragedies OR Comedies (or the Histories, for the completionists out there).

Miranda observing Prospero's storm at the beginning of The Tempest.  Yes the sort of Romance we're doing this summer. (Painting by J. W. Waterhouse)

Miranda observing Prospero’s storm at the beginning of The Tempest. Yes the sort of Romance we’re doing this summer. (Painting by J. W. Waterhouse)

What they DO share is a remarkable similarity to each other.  All of these plays heavily feature the relationship between a single father and daughter.  They all feature families that have been separated.  Those separations all involve either betrayal, a body of water, or both.  In every case these father figures (Pericles, Prospero, Cymbeline, and Leontes) have made some serious error in judgement that led to their separation from their family, and have some noble friend and ally who remained loyal to them, usually without their knowledge.  They all involve a substantial leap forward in time in the story.  They each end with a reconciliation and reunification of the separated families, as the protagonist learns the mistake he has made and atones for it.

From We Happy Few's 2013 production of The Tempest.  Left-Right: Josh Adams, Andrew Keller, Scott Gaines, and Britt Duff.

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Left-Right: Josh Adams, Andrew Keller, Scott Gaines, and Britt Duff.

And, most significantly from the We Happy Few perspective, they all have explicit moments of magic.  Whether that magic is Prospero calling the storm at the beginning of The Tempest, Jupiter, King of the Gods, delivering a letter to Posthumus in prison in Cymbeline, fire from the heavens consuming Antioch at the end of Pericles, or …well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending of OUR play before you came to see it, but believe me when I tell you that magic and mystery abound in the Romances.  As our faithful viewers should recall from previous productions, We Happy Few thrives on discovering the magical and mysterious.  Beginning with Hamlet’s madness as he watches his friends transform into his enemies before his eyes, through Juliet’s attempt to escape imprisonment in a literal man’s world, and ending with the phantom vengeance of the Duchess of Malfi on her treacherous brothers, We Happy Few has always found and brought out the magic in our plays.  It should come as no surprise that we would choose to do another Romance so soon.  Far from not fitting into the traditional WHF model, The Winter’s Tale may be the closest we’ve come to our ethos since Hamlet.