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OSF elevates the neglected 'Pericles'

"Pericles" doesn't usually turn up on anybody's list of favorite Shakespeare plays. The play is episodic, its events are implausible, and it can't seem to make up its mind whether it's tragic or comic. Its events are unbelievable, its hero frustratingly passive. A large chunk of it, perhaps the first two acts, are thought to have been written by somebody other than Shakespeare.

Done with conviction and verve, however, as in the Joseph Haj-helmed version that opened Saturday afternoon in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Thomas Theatre, "Pericles" rises to become breathtaking entertainment, and what's more, to move us emotionally.

Once in a while, a play grabs you in its first moment and whisks you to another world, one more vivid than ours, where you have powerful experiences until you're released back into everyday life, changed, when the actors take their curtain call. This is one of those deals.

We get the inside story from a ghost character called Gower (Armando Duran), a medieval storyteller who delivers the prologue and acts as a chorus. He introduces several "dumb shows," or brief scenes that fill in plot points without being fully acted out.

In ancient Antioch, King Antiochus (Scott Ripley), who practices incest with his beautiful daughter, offers her hand to anybody who solves his riddle. The catch: get it wrong and you die. Pericles (Wayne T. Carr), Prince of Tyre, figures it out but knows better than to say, lest the king kill him anyway.

There's only one thing for it. Leaving his loyal friend Helicanus (Michael J. Hume) in charge, Pericles hits the Mediterranean world's long and winding road, the sea, setting in motion a years' long chain of events that will see him tossed about like a cork by storms, finding and losing love several times and losing even his sense of himself. He gains and loses a wife (Thaisa, played by Brooke Parks) and a daughter (Marina, played by Jennie Greenberry).

Parks also plays Dionyza, an archetypal wicked stepmother. Greenberry also plays Antiochus' daughter. There's a lot of doubling. Some actors play three and even four roles.

Pericles' unlikely adventures make us think of Odysseus, or Job. They are absurd if taken literally, but with the play's progress resolve themselves into a cosmic allegory of life and death in a seemingly indifferent universe.

And what a ride. The sea is almost as much a character as Pericles or Marina. It's at once a literal setting and a metaphor about "being at sea." Rather like the Green World in Shakespeare comedies, it's also a place of transitions, from which Thaisa, Marina and ultimately Pericles will emerge changed forever.

Like an absurdist anti-hero out of Camus, Pericles roams the Mediterranean world, finding great joy and great sadness, darkness and the light, life and death, but he has no control over his fate. Happiness is illusory and fleeting, and mortality is always looming in a universe of cruel/tender indifference.

But Pericles is no rebel. He is oddly supine, accepting whatever the fates throw his way. Like Marina and Thaisa, he symbolically dies and is resurrected. Yet perhaps the gods have a benevolent streak after all, as we see in the end.

There are too many good performance to detail. But one that must be noted is Michael J. Hume's outrageous turn as the bawd who with her husband runs the brothel where Marina winds up after Dionyza's plan to have her murdered is foiled with split-second timing by pirates (have we mentioned the pirates?). In drag and a fright wig, his face hideously clownish with make up, Hume totters around on platform shoes in his efforts to close the deal with the stubbornly virginal Marina and her customers (remember, we're on a mythical level here).

Haj, who directed the OSF's 2012 production of "Henry V," and was recently named artistic director of the prestigious Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, directed "Pericles" in 2008 at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C., and where he is producing artistic director. For this production he brought his team of artists to OSF, including composer and sound designer Jack Herrick, scenic designer Jan Chambers and video designer Francesca Talenti.

Together, these people put the intimate, high-tech Thomas Theatre through its paces. Chambers' multi-level stage, Rui Rita's fantastical lighting and Talenti's video of a raging sea rock the room until you almost feel seasick. You don't go to a play for the production values, but the bells and whistles — and they are dazzling — all go to serve the world of the play.

There are riches too abundant to describe here that need mentioning, including the appearance of the ghost-like goddess Diana, Duran's velvety narration as Gower, the comic moment Marina is saved by the pirates, a levitating platform for heightened drama and Herrick's evocative score played by live musicians.

The play temporarily lost momentum after intermission, and a group song that kicks off the second half could be omitted. But it all comes back together with a moving and unlikely celebration of human goodness. The play was popular in Shakespeare's day before it fell into disrespect. Now we know why.

You don't go to a play for its jaw-dropping production values, but sometimes they are conceived and executed not simply to show off but so as to serve and illuminate the play. This is one of those times.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.