Members of the cast of the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production of Pericles.
Members of the cast of the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production of Pericles.

Bard on the Beach’s Pericles is a magical, hypnotic retelling that brings the plot and values of this tragi-romance into modernity.

The play is not one of Shakespeare’s finest works. Almost universally panned by critics throughout the centuries – it was called “a mouldy tale” by 17th century literary critic Ben Jonson – it was rarely produced until the 1950s. Experts even believe that it was written by both Shakespeare and George Wilkins, a pamphleteer and unsavoury character of the time.

The achievements of director Lois Anderson, her cast, and crew, are all the more impressive as a result.

In a departure from the original script, Anderson’s interpretation uses storytelling within the play, and a restructured plot line, to explore this tale of journeys.

The story opens with a beautiful young woman offered to an old hermit magician, Cerimon, by a brothel madam. Interested in her chaste assistance only, Cerimon conjures the story of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and his misadventures, beginning as he flees from a nation after correctly guessing that the woman whose hand he is vying for is in an incestuous relationship with her father, the King. What follows is a journey for the title character; a series of adventures on sea and in different lands as he finds, loses, and regains love and family.

If the reworking of the script provides an intriguing shape for the play, the set illuminates it. Amir Ofek’s stage is simple, yet luscious, with drapes and bejeweled lanterns strung against broken pillars. Stage front, sunken sandpits contain metal bowls, glass bottles, and statues – all used as props in the telling of the continued story.

There’s a sense of playfulness and surprise as certain objects transform. A chalice is used as a crown. A dusty sheet is molded into a ship, the sea that wrecks it, and the beach upon which the sailors land. The same sheet becomes a stage to enact a jousting match to win a Princess’ heart before morphing into a stamping horse upon which Pericles rides to victory.

Amidst these deft, wizarding touches, the small cast excel. Kaymar Pazandeh, a recent graduate from Studio 58, commands attention and empathy as a passionate Pericles. Sereana Malani breathes power and sultry intelligence into the role of Thaisa. Their portrayal of the tryst offers a sensuous glance at deep love, reminding us of the human cost of wrong steps in this harsh, often godforsaken world. Luisa Jojic is utterly convincing as the young girl who witnesses the retelling of Pericles’ tale, and who has more involvement than we expected.

As audience members, we sit back in our theatre chairs saying, “Tell us a story. Make us suspend disbelief, and forget where we are.” Lois Anderson’s ingenious conception of Pericles reminds us of the joy and power of storytelling.

Pericles by William Shakespeare. Directed by Lois Anderson. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production. On stage at Vanier Park until September 18. Visit http://bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.