"To sing a song that was old sung," the narrator intones at the top of Shakespeare's Pericles.
Joseph Haj makes the music ring out in his Guthrie debut, as he takes one of Shakespeare's "trouble" plays and makes it a joyful, moving experience.
The process of Pericles started long before Haj was brought on last summer as the new head of the Guthrie. It began even further back than the opening of the current version at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Haj performed in the show early in his career, and has directed multiple versions throughout the years. This is the third stop for this edition.
"It is one of [Shakespeare's] romance plays, with The Tempest, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale," he says. "All of Shakespeare's plays are as deep as they are broad, but some need much more room. In Romeo and Juliet, the structure is defined. You can set it on Mars. You can do what you want with it. When you get to those late plays, there is so much space in it."
Pericles is also a rarity among Shakespeare's work in that it doesn't live nearly the same on the page as it does onstage. "I can't think of another Shakespeare play where the gap between the page and seeing it in production is so great," Haj says.
There's also the matter of the plot. In the first act alone, Pericles, a prince of Tyre, travels across the kingdoms of the ancient world on multiple adventures. The action doesn't settle until Pericles has lost his wife at sea, leaving him with his infant daughter, Marina. He leaves her behind to take care of his kingdom, promising to return when she is grown. But before that happens, she's killed — or so he is led to believe. In reality, she is captured by pirates, sold into slavery, and becomes a chaste concubine. (Yes, that's enough plot for a single play just on its own.)
Like The Winter's Tale, we get a jump in the action for the second half, as Pericles attempts to reunite with his now-grown daughter and, eventually, his wife, who didn't die in the earlier shipwreck after all.
It's easy to lose the audience in all of this, as the show descends into a kind of 1940s serial, promising more action, characters, and settings around the corner.
The director, along with a talented cast who have lived with the material for more than a year, bind the diffuse pieces together. Oh sure, there are still stray characters here and there, but the whole evening feels like it is building up to the show's emotional core: Pericles' reunions with his daughter and wife.
And going back to that first line, it isn't just metaphorical song. Haj has packed the show with music from composer Jack Herrick, a folk musician and member of the Red Clay Ramblers. His expressive score also bridges the gaps among the various moments of the play.
"[Pericles] is part of the oral tradition. It is not meant to be read, but told. So much American string music comes out of that tradition. It seemed like such a great match for this show," Haj says.
As mentioned earlier, this is the third version of this production. The show opened 14 months ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before Haj came to the Guthrie. Following that, it moved to Washington D.C. Still, the company spent three weeks in rehearsals as they reimagined the piece for the theater's larger thrust stage.
"It's a little trippy-dippy to say each room has its own energy, but you have to tune a production to any room you are in," Haj says. "I've watched them through these rehearsals, and seen them reclaim ownership of it."
IF YOU GO:
Through February 21