Review: Upon This Shore, Idle Muse’s Pericles Adaptation, Needs to Inject Some Excitement

Idle Muse Theatre takes on the difficult task of staging Shakespeare’s Pericles with excitement along with the hero’s journeys to find love and home. Upon This Shore: A Tale of Pericles and the Daughters of Tyre, is adapted and directed by artistic director Evan Jackson. Set in ancient times and spoken in Shakespearean language, the two-hour production features two shipwrecks, knightly jousts, captures by pirates, incest, a brothel scene, and a miraculous survival, all amid visits to Pentapolis, Tarsus,  Antioch and Pericles’ hometown of Tyre.

The journeys are all there, but the excitement is missing. Jackson apparently wanted to shorten the usual three-hour production, so these events stream by quickly. Your head will spin and you may lose track of characters.

Brendan Hutt, who plays Pericles, is a fine actor with a grand speaking voice and vocal presence. Helicanus, Pericles’ counselor, played by Laura Jones Macklin, also handles the Shakespearean language beautifully, as do a few other characters. But many of the cast of 13 do not and the clarity of the language is lost as is some of the storyline.

Linsey Falls, Brendan Hutt, Morgan Manasa and Caty Gordon. Photo by Steven Townshend, Distant Era.

The play opens with actors greeting each other with brief excerpts from other Shakespearean works—famous quotes from Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, and Hamlet. This is a refreshing bit of theatricality but it could have used more dramatic flourish.

Pericles’ visits to various sites result in some dramatic moments. In Antioch, he meets the ruler Antiochus (Watson Swift) and his unnamed daughter (Elizabeth MacDougald, who we meet later in another guise). It becomes clear to Pericles that Antiochus is guilty of a more than fatherly relationship with his daughter and he vows to get away from the scene. Later, when he comes to Pentapolis after a shipwreck, he meets “the great Simonides” (Watson Swift) and participates in a knightly challenge to win the hand of daughter Thaisa (Mara Kovacevic). Within a fleeting moment, they flirt, marry and Thaisa is ready to give birth. They take an ocean voyage, when a storm causes Thaisa’s death as she is giving birth to daughter Marina (Caty Gordon), who Pericles names for the sea where she is born.

Director Jackson’s cast is diverse and gender-fluid, which adds a sense of modernity to the ancient story. The simple scenic design features lighting and projection design by Laura J. Wiley with sound and music design by L.J. Luthringer. The costume design is generally attractive and appropriate, especially for female performers’ gowns, but many of the male performers’ costumes are truly unflattering. This is especially true of  the costumes worn by our hero, Pericles, who needed to make a visit to the Grecian tailor.

Watson Swift, Elizabeth MacDougald and Jennifer Mohr. Photo by Steven Townshend, Distant Era.

Pericles is categorized as one of Shakespeare’s later romances (also a “problem play”), along with Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. But scholars do not agree how much of it is a Shakespearean work and it was not included in the First Folio. Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom thinks that the writer of at least the first act was “a lowlife hack” named George Wilkins. “Even by the standards of Shakespeare’s London, Wilkins was an unsavory fellow—a whoremonger, in fact, a very relevant occupation for a coauthor of Pericles, although the superb brothel scenes are Shakespeare’s own work.” The brothel scene in act two retains Shakespeare’s language when the Bawd (Morgan Manasa) instructs her henchmen on how to market Marina’s virginity.

“Take you the marks of her: the color of her hair, complexion, height, her age, with warrant of her virginity, and cry ‘He that will give most shall have her first.’ Such a maidenhead were no cheap thing ….”

If you haven’t seen or read Pericles lately, at least read the character list and synopsis in the Wikipedia entry before seeing the play. (I wouldn’t have known who the woman was who appeared occasionally in act two performing mysterious tasks if I had not reread the play.)

After seeing Upon This Shore Thursday night, I dreamed about our hero. In my dream, Pericles’ tumultuous adventures occur in our modern era, at least during the last century. Joe Pericles, mayor of Peoria, sets off on a road trip to see how other mayors are handling municipal issues. My dream had a racial justice theme with Mayor Pericles landing in the oceanside town of Wilmington, NC, in time for the racial massacre by whites against the Black business community. He then reaches New Orleans where he’s challenged to fight four other krewe monarchs for first place in the Mardi Gras parade and the hand of the mayor’s daughter, Nola. During a cocktail river cruise, there’s a shipwreck and Nola is thrown overboard. Despondent, Pericles drives on over to Tulsa to leave his baby daughter Rivera (wait, where did that baby come from?) in the care of Mayor Cleon and his wife, Dionyza. The baby is safe, but Joe barely escapes the Tulsa massacre that kills thousands of Blacks and destroys the successful Black business district. Heading back to Peoria, he’s on the Mississippi River on an oil barge hanging out with Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer when the oil barge sinks and spills thousands of barrels of crude oil into the Mississippi just off the Quad Cities. Mayor Pericles swims to shore and heads home, where he meets a young woman who turns out to be his daughter, Rivera, and reunites with his wife Nola, who survived the riverboat accident and runs a woman’s shelter in Moline. They celebrate.

That’s no more complicated than the actual plot of Upon This Shore and maybe more fun. But then, it was only a dream.

Upon This Shore by Idle Muse Theatre continues through April 3 at the Edge Off Broadway Theater, 1133 W. Catalpa Ave. in Edgewater, a new and well designed small venue. Running time is two hours, including one intermission. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for students and seniors, and $10 for Thursday Industry Nights. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. You can call the Idle Muse Theatre box office at 773-340-9438. Covid protocols are in place; you will need to provide proof of vaccination and wear a mask while you are in the theater building.

For more information on this and other productions, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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