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Three-Hour Tour

On an Odyssey: Wilson D. Michaels gives a solid performance as the title character in the Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of "Pericles."

A Homeric hero tours the world--for a little too long--in 'Pericles'

By Anne Gelhaus

FOR ALL ITS ADULT themes--incest, prostitution and attempted murder, to name but a few--Pericles is one of Shakespeare's more boring plays, a pseudo­Greek tragedy so wrapped up in the sound of its own voice that it soon forgets to show the audience a great deal of what its characters are talking about. (The play's talkiness could be attributed in part to the fact that other writers had a hand in the script, although debate still rages as to exactly how much of it Shakespeare wrote and who helped him with the rest.)

Credit Shakespeare Santa Cruz with recognizing the play's penchant for navel examination and doing all it can to highlight the strong points of the continual narrative. The production is full of well-paced musical interludes and sight gags that renew its momentum when things start to lag, and director Christopher Grabowski has moved the action from ancient Greece to more contemporary locales throughout the Middle and Far East. These inventions add color to both performances and costumes, giving the eye and ear something to latch onto when the play's language becomes less poetic and more pedantic.

Wilson D. Michaels is solid as Pericles, whose Homeric odyssey begins when he flees from King Antiochus (David Eppel), who orders him killed after Pericles figures out that the king has been sleeping with his own daughter (Coco Medvitz), and ends years later when Pericles is reunited with wife Thaisa (Bess Welden) and daughter Marina (Jennifer Morris), both of whom he thought long dead. With help from costume designer Todd Roehrman and wig designer Robin Church, Michaels deftly expresses the toll this journey has taken on his character in terms of both aging and personal loss.

Pericles' own nation of Tyre is depicted as an Arab nation in the SSC production, and the shores he washes up on every time he gets shipwrecked--which is every time he sets sail--resemble places like Thailand, Iran and India. Again, these transformations occur primarily through the ensemble's costume changes, since Kevin Adams' set design is a round, bare platform meant to represent the world at large.

Some of the worlds within the world that Pericles visits are more believable than others; the ones that falter do so in large part because the actors haven't figured out exactly where they're supposed to be. In one scene, director Grabowski has tried to create a global fishing village of sorts, but it's more confusing than edifying to have a Jamaican (June A. Lomena) and a Bostonian (Greg Coffin) hauling in nets side by side.

One of the more successful worlds is the Third World nation where Pericles saves the population from starvation and then returns to leave the infant Marina in care of the ruling family when he thinks his wife has died in childbirth. Jack Zerbe gives a strong performance as King Cleon, and Lomena is convincing as the jealous Queen Dionyza.

Threading all this nonsense together is Ken Grantham in a wonderful performance as Gower, who narrates the play in classic Greek style, tempered with modern cynicism. Grabowski's decision to make Gower a homeless man was a brilliant one: The story of Pericles is the kind of unbelievable stuff you often overhear the less fortunate among us mumbling to themselves as they push their shopping carts.

All the main characters in Pericles tend to soliloquize whenever they open their mouths, and cast member Coffin, who is also the musical director, has taken the play's more lyrical passages and turned them, appropriately, into lyrics. On several occasions, Michaels' Pericles delivers his dialogue in an Arabic-style chant, and other actors also sing in a style that conforms to their characters' nation of origin. Percussionist Jaimie Heilpern and saxophonist Rob Pratt ably back these musical interludes.

The journey of Pericles is a three-hour tour, and despite SSC's best efforts, it's hard not to start thinking about going home yourself once it becomes clear that the title character will be reunited with his family. Even in the realm of Greek tragedies, where bad things always happen to good but clueless people, Pericles stretches both the audience's credulity and its patience.

Pericles plays in repertory through Sept. 1 at the UC­Santa Cruz Festival Glen, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15-$21. (408/459-2159)

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From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of Metro

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