Shakespearing #41 by John King

Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Modern Verse Translation of Pericles

Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s second Shakespeare offering of the 2015-2016 season is Pericles, rendered into a modern verse translation by Ellen McLaughlin. This translation is part of a larger project called Play on! that will offer modern translations of all of Shakespeare’s plays.

In principle, I am against this sort of thing. Why mount a production of something that is almost Shakespeare? If your production is in English, then your actors, if they are good, will make the lines intelligible and mostly understood by audiences. Technically speaking, Shakespeare was actually already writing in Modern English.

For awhile, I had to endure my friends’ fondness for smooth jazz, which was unjazzy music made for people who loathed jazz, but wanted to be able to say that they were the kind of sophisticated listener that indeed liked jazz. Kenny G and Thelonious Monk both make jazz, such a person wanted to say, they are just different approaches to jazz. Wait a minute, John, who is this Thelonious Monk person anyway?

However, despite my theoretical concerns, Ellen McLaughlin is very clearly not analogous to Kenny G, and while I do doubt the necessity of translating Shakespeare into English, in the case of Pericles, one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays, the verse translation does impart a sense of nobility and grandeur that is reasonably similar to the original. I am one of those bardolotrous freaks who has in fact seen Pericles in a different production years ago, and can make the comparison from experience.

OST’s Pericles is an amazing show, somehow even better than its exquisite Tempest, which is playing concurrently in repertory.

Pericles tells an epic tale of a hero whose fate is tortured, who goes mad from loss and despair, whose fortune is damned, despite his nobility and intelligence. Imagine Oedipus, The Odyssey, the saga of King Arthur, Pamela, and “The Book of Job” all rolled into one brutal, visceral tale. There is a psychedelic visitation of the goddess Diana. There is lowbrow humor, earnest romance, and sublime turns of pathos.

Despite my hesitation about anyone rewriting Shakespeare, Ellen McLaughlin might just have made Pericles a touch more watchable. Shakespeare could sometimes demand that actors do the impossible, and ratcheting down the rhetoric of the final scenes of the play made the emotions a little bit less draining to watch. That director Jim Helsinger could navigate the emotional upheavals of the play is a testament to the excellence of Orlando Shakespeare Theater. The move to include a chorus and the beginning and ending of the play, to lend it a pantheistic spiritual air, invites respect for the past, even as the diction of Shakespeare was made more contemporary.

John P. Keller is impressive as the long-suffering hero Pericles. Richard B. Watson is Helicanus, a loyal advisor to Pericles who gives the audience a greater notion of Pericles’s nobility. Lisa Wolpe is a wonder in her many roles, as an assassin, as the nurse of a princess, as a brothel keeper, as a vestal virgin. Greg Thornton plays multiple kings, some sinister, some goofy. And Kimmi Johnson is a marvel as Diana, Goddess of the Moon. There are too many superior performances to enumerate here, but one thing to note is that if you see both The Tempest and Pericles, you can thrill to see how differently these actors are in one play or the other.

Great theater is unforgettable. If you live in the city Beautiful, you owe it to yourself to go see Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Pericles and The Tempest.

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NOTE: Photos by Tony Firriolo.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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