Philly Fringe 2017: Die-Cast presents William Shakespeare’s ‘Pericles’

Fate and the sea

The Fringe Festival offers great opportunities for new companies. So, it's no surprise that Die-Cast co-founders Brenna Geffers and Thom Weaver launch their new partnership with William Shakespeare's Pericles before moving it to the Tennessee Williams Festival in Provincetown, Massachusetts, later this month.

L to R: Chris Anthony and Keith Conallen get sensuous. (Photo by Brenna Geffers.)

What's puzzling, though, is how the result differs so much from their high-concept collaborations like EgoPo's Machinal and The Hairy Ape (which visited the Williams Festival last year) and Theatre Exile's Knives in Hens. All featured radical transformations of theater spaces along with gutsy stylized performances.

The latter define Pericles, while the venue — the Rotunda's large open circle, slanted wooden floor, domed ceiling with flaking paint, and imposing altar — is radical enough, augmented with just a few gauzy white cloths and simple lighting.

Through the actors

A relatively small cast works together to bring this Shakespeare play to life. Keith Conallen plays the title role, surviving adventures that span 20 years, gaining and losing possessions and people. Shakespeare made Gower, the 14th century poet who penned the story on which he based the play, a narrator (played by Chris Anthony), and Geffers enlarges his role. Eight other actors not only play all the other characters but sing, hum, drum, and otherwise embody natural and supernatural forces. Music emanates from the cast constantly, often in soulful sighs and ethereal sea sounds.

Geffers uses the Rotunda's vast space well, keeping the limited seating close to the action (though sometimes compromising sightlines) and positioning actors to use the space's unpredictable echoes to great effect. The entire room's sound trembles ominously. The ear quickly adjusts, but some positions amplify voices so that an actor speaking 30 feet away seems to whisper behind us. Geffers staged EgoPo's Marat/Sade here in 2012 and recalls a thing or two. This low-tech sound augmentation gives the production an air of ancient authority.

Less successful are the uncredited costumes; baggy black pants and tunics unify the ensemble by making all equally frumpy. Colored sashes help distinguish the many characters, but not enough, and the actors don black makeup around their eyes. They're also barefoot, a Geffers tradition, which benefits the fluid staging; they literally run miles, most of it uphill given the space's slant, while speaking verse and singing.

A sea story

As noble, tortured Pericles encounters the sea's hazards — shipwreck, storms, pirates — Gower guides us like a grown-up Puck, a magical interloper shaping events to the ending's revelations. Moments of great beauty are both verbal — especially from Andrew Carroll, Colleen Corcoran, and Kayla Anthony as Pericles's wife Thaisa — and physical, particularly from Hannah Van Sciver as Pericles's feisty lost daughter Marina.

This Pericles is a rare and welcome opportunity to experience one of Shakespeare's later plays. Like The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, it explores family reconciliation with a mature melancholy and spirituality. At the Willams Festival, Pericles will play on the 66-foot schooner Dorothea Rose, where this production's best qualities should be enhanced. 

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