Two River Theater mounts inventive new ‘dive bar’-set ‘Pericles’

Philippe Bowgen and Nikki Massoud co-star in "Pericles," which is at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through May 8.

PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Philippe Bowgen and Nikki Massoud co-star in “Pericles,” which is at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through May 8.

The title character of “Pericles,” the Shakespearean play that is currently at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, undergoes countless ordeals before being reunited, at the end of the play, with his wife and daughter. He’s an Odysseus- or Hercules-like figure.

There’s something Herculean, too, about the efforts of director David Schweizer, songwriter Rinde Eckert and scenic designer Caleb Wertenbaker, who have taken on the monumental task of trying to breathe new life into one of Shakespeare’s least frequently performed plays in this production (it’s actually widely believed that Shakespeare wrote only part of “Pericles,” but we won’t get into that here).

The play is set in a dive bar, with neon signs and nautical steering wheels on the walls. The seven actors play employees and patrons of the bar who, for some reason that is never fully explained, decide to act out the story of “Pericles.” These are some seriously literary barflies!

They take on two or more roles apiece, using makeshift props. The strings of a mop become a wig, for instance, and two characters hold badminton rackets and wear lobster bibs to signify that they’re rich jerks. Aluminum foil becomes armor; a king wears a cardboard Burger King crown.

Eckert wrote 20 songs for the production, and performs them onstage, along with two other musicians. They use unconventional instruments such as dulcimer and toy piano as well as more common ones such as guitar and drums. Eckert is one of the seven actors as well.

From left, Kevin Mambo, Mary Testa and Ellen Harvey in "Pericles."

From left, Kevin Mambo, Mary Testa and Ellen Harvey in “Pericles.”

I liked the music — Eckert has written some lovely ballads and some funny songs as well, including one in which the goddess Diana marvels at humans’ mistaken belief that the gods actually care about what happens to them. Eckert also happens to have a great voice that can build to near-operatic power when the song calls for it.

I liked the goofy clowning, and the plays’s grimy, ragtag sense of atmosphere. If Tom Waits ever sought to reinvent Shakespeare, he might come up with something like this.

Still, there’s a reason “Pericles” is one of Shakespeare’s most obscure plays. Its title character is a rather generic hero, and its adventures don’t really build to anything. There’s just one after another — involving murderous kings and queens, and shipwrecks, and pirates — until you get to the happy ending.

And so, while I admire the creativity that went into building this new “Pericles,” I can’t say it was a particularly involving theatrical experience. I would love to see what this cast and crew could do with some of Shakespeare’s other, richer plays, but there’s just so much you can do with “Pericles.”

“Pericles” is at the Two River Theater through May 8; visit tworivertheater.org.

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