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'Pericles': A 'mouldy tale' made fresh

“Pericles” is a rarely produced play, a problematic work that William Shakespeare's colleague Ben Johnson once called a “mouldy tale.” But under the guidance of seasoned director Joseph Haj, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has pulled dusty “Pericles” off the shelf and turned it into one of the most dynamic and moving productions of the season.

Haj, who also is artistic director of the renowned Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, says he's always been drawn to “Pericles,” and this is his fourth production of the play. The story of noble prince Pericles and his adventures at sea is a wild globe-trot packed with a creepy king, shipwrecks, princesses, pirates, a brothel, a resurrected bride and more.

“The adventure is thrilling, but the play is also the work of a very mature playwright,” says Haj. “In 'Pericles,' Shakespeare is writing at the height of his gifts.”

Haj says part of the story's appeal is its humanity.

“There's something so human about the story. As fabulous as the events of the play are, and as implausible the plot points, at bottom 'Pericles' is very much the story of a life lived,” he says. “There are sorrows and moments of great beauty and, as in life, we don't necessarily earn those things. In that sense, 'Pericles' is true to life. Only in bad plays do bad things just happen to bad people and good things just happen to good people.”

One aspect of the production that Haj was certain of from the beginning is the relatively spare set.

“I've learned not to over-articulate Pericles' world,” he says. “The story is an adventurous yarn. It goes from one fabulous locale to another, and I knew I wanted a container for the play, a single set without a lot of moving parts, and I left it to the actors to shift the sense of location and characters.”

Haj says the casting emphasizes the dual aspects of human nature that Shakespeare explores in the play.

“The way the play is structured, the characters in the play are lined up like photo-negatives. There's the good father and the bad father, the good wife and the bad wife, the good daughter and the bad daughter,” Haj says. “I thought, how thrilling would it be if we double-cast those with the same actors and have them play both sides.”

Spare sets and clear storytelling may be a hallmark of Haj's work.

“I don't like a lot of furniture, I like for actors and the space to tell a story,” he says, adding that because "Pericles" isn't frequently produced, it's important that it be clear to the audience. “I'm very language-centric. If audiences miss a key point in 'Romeo and Juliet,' for example, they can figure it out because they know the story. But this might be the only production of 'Pericles' they ever see.”

Haj says the process of building the production was quite smooth.

“OSF has an embarrassment of riches in terms of the excellence of all the people involved, from the acting company to stage crew to the running crew to stage management,” he says. “This play was one of the most effortless productions I have ever been a part of. I'm not only pleased with the outcome, I'm pleased with the journey.

“I think that's what the play explores as much as anything else, and in the case of this particular production, it was an excellent journey.”

"Pericles" runs through Nov. 1 in the Thomas Theatre.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.

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Shipwrecked, Pericles (Wayne T. Carr) is adrift at sea. OSF photo by Jenny Graham
Pericles (Wayne T. Carr, left) washes ashore from a shipwreck and is met by a group of fishermen (Michael J. Hume, U. Jonathan Toppo, Cedric Lamar). OSF photo by Jenny Graham