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A feminist slant takes 'Pericles' into timely territory

Tatiana Williams and Audrey Park

Tatiana Williams and Audrey Park Paula Keller

When Michelle Hensley began making plans to adapt Pericles for her company, Ten Thousand Things, she didn’t know the Guthrie Theater would also swoop in and present Joseph Haj’s take on Shakespeare’s play. One imagines that she also couldn’t have guessed that her Pericles would be presented during the final stretch of a presidential battle between the first female major-party nominee and a man who brags about assaulting women.

That’s relevant because this is a pointedly feminist take on Pericles, complete with a revised final scene that has the goddess Diana (Karen Wiese-Thompson) lecturing the eponymous wanderer (Ansa Akyea) about the women he’s slighted along the course of his journey. It’s not for purists, but it offers a provocative counterpoint to the unproblematic emotional apotheosis that Pericles gets in the standard script.

Hensley, who enlisted playwright Kira Obolensky to help craft the new ending, also made substantial trims to bring the play down to two hours in length. The irony of Ten Thousand Things’ Pericles is that the production’s fleet-footed approach — as well as the casting of the sympathetic Akyea, whose face constantly signals emotional availability — actually makes Diana’s reprimand feel less justified than it would if the preceding scenes had been more conventionally presented.

In the Ten Thousand Things version — staged in the round with house lights up, per the company’s norm — literal signposts mark the various destinations on the Prince of Tyre’s tortuous journey. Pericles finds and loses both a wife (Audrey Park) and a daughter (Tatiana Williams) while fleeing the wrath of Antiochus (Pearce Bunting), a king who’s been forcing his daughter (Maggie Chestovich) into his bed.

Pericles could have done a lot more for that captive girl, Diana points out, as well as for Pericles’ own daughter, Marina, and his wife, Thaisa. Pericles (spoiler alert!) doesn’t even check Thaisa for a pulse before tossing her overboard at the behest of the superstitious sailors piloting the vessel where she seems to have died in childbirth.

Okay, sure, those were extenuating circumstances. Diana might have more of a point regarding the daughter who Pericles not only drops off, in infancy, with two guardians of questionable character — he’s then happy to have Marina, as an adult, marry a guy (James Rodriguez) who first met her after paying to take her virginity.

As all this plays out, performers run back and forth through the audience, often talking directly to individual audience members and occasionally slipping into anachronistic slang. Scenes tend to fly by, with actors jumping among characters, most notably Wiese-Thompson, who plays the storyteller Gower and also rotates among other personae so quickly that in one case, she actually changes character in mid-sentence.

It’s an accessible and engaging approach to this play, which, as Shakespeare goes, isn’t exactly Shakespeare. While it might not be the Pericles you want, right now it might just be the Pericles we need.

IF YOU GO:

Pericles
Ten Thousand Things Theater
Open Book/Guthrie’s Dowling Studio
612-203-9502; through November 6