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Shakespeare becomes surreal at Center Stage


Center Stage's production of Shakespeare's "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" takes a strange play and makes it stranger.

A work of disputed authorship, uneven poetry and little psychological depth, the play is essentially an adventure story, complete with shipwrecks, pirates, miracles and more than a few convenient coincidences.

Director Irene Lewis enhances the mix with a heavy dose of surrealism. She has staged this magical mystery tour in the vast east end of the Head Theater on an abstract set by John M. Conklin with exaggerated lighting by Pat Collins. The effect is like seeing an Indiana Jones script written by the Bard and designed by surrealist artist Rene Magritte.

These are far from arbitrary choices, however. The tale of a good and noble prince who loses his wife and daughter and is reunited with them only after great suffering, "Pericles" is at once simple and mythic. Lewis' production captures both of these qualities.

Her chief directorial device is to emphasize the script's storytelling flavor. The play is narrated by the medieval poet Gower, portrayed by professorial Robert Cornthwaite, who sits on the sidelines when he isn't introducing a scene. Gower, in turn, is assisted by a character largely of Lewis' invention -- a jack-of-all-trades chorus figure played by David J. Steinberg, who happens to be a dwarf and who, at one point, entertains the audience with magic tricks.

Like most of this versatile small cast, Cornthwaite and Steinberg play multiple roles -- an inventive choice that works not only by adding to the storytelling quality, but also because "Pericles" is long on action and short on character development.

Even the main characters are more passive symbols than active participants. Pericles is stoically portrayed by Charles Shaw Robinson; Gina Torres is sweetness itself as his wife; and Kate Forbes is purity incarnate as their daughter Marina. Yet all three exist primarily to demonstrate how the human spirit adapts to change, not how humans effect change themselves.

"Pericles" might seem an odd choice for a theater that has produced less than one-third of the Shakespearean canon, but the play introduces the rich themes of the late romances -- paternal love, loss and redemption.

Center Stage's production won't convince anyone that this is one of Shakespeare's great works -- that would be impossible -- but it reaffirms the significance of the script at the same time it highlights its peculiarity.

"Pericles, Prince of Tyre" continues at Center Stage through April 5; call (410) 332-0033.

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