The perils of Pericles

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By Lindsay Gibb

As the ship rocks to and for you feel the crashing waves of the restless sea.  You grab a mast to steady yourself.  The hollers of sailors and the groans of a woman in labour are heard.  you feel dark, damp and alone.

Thought the cast members are wearing their most comfortable attired for rehearsal, it is somewhat fitting that the two main players in this scene are dressed in grey.  The colour describes the scene better than any words.

This year’s third-year acting students, the same group who brought us Hair in October, are back with another show — but this time one dating further back than the 1960s.  Try 1608.  Pericles, Prince of Tyre is the latest production of the Ryerson Theatre School.

Shakespeare’s Pericles is the story of a prince who just doesn’t have any luck.

“Shitty things happen to him,” says Andrew Penner who plays Pericles in the show.  First he’s exiled from his land, then every time he gets on a ship there’s a storm, then his wife dies in childbirth.  And it keeps going downhill from there.”

Penner says the show has everything.

“High sea adventures, shipwrecks, pirates, incestuous fathers, adultery… It’s got all of that good stuff.”

Pericles’ right hand man, Helicanus, advises him to leave Tyre when he discovers a secret held by Antiochus, King of Antioch.

Blake Wiswell plays Helicanus.

“In my wisdom I tell [Pericles] to just go on tour for awhile,” he says on behalf of his character.  “Just until he calms down or he dies, one of the two.”

Helicanus isn’t the only part Wiswell plays.  Throughout the show he also appears as a pirate, a knight and a servant.  When playing the pirate he says he is sometimes tempted to go at it from a Robin Williams Popeye-type angle.  But, of course, that wouldn’t quite fit with the Elizabethan time period.

According to Wiswell, the story is of fates and coincidences.  He says if you think about the plot as much as the actors do you’ll discover some things in life aren’t just coincidences.

“If you serve a guy coffee with a smile and later on down the road you ask someone for a quarter and it’s the same guy, it happens for a reason,” he says.

You can tell by his singing during any moment of silence, and his constant flow of South Park impressions, that Blake Wiswell belongs in theatre.

Wiswell admits to adding lines from the late-night cartoon during rehearsals of the play Pericles.

“You shall not need, my fellow peers of Tyre … my bag of cheesy poofs!” he says in the whining voice of character Eric Cartman.  Grabbing the odd cast member to dance them around the room just before resuming rehearsal, Wiswell is loving the theatre experience.

Wiswell says 10 per cent of what is done in rehearsal is what the audience will see on stage, the other 90 per cent is what he calls “rewarding exploration.”  The cast spends a lot of time studying their characters’ lines, backgrounds and feelings before putting on a play.  But this kind of work allows Wiswell and the rest of the cast the opportunity to be someone else for a moment.

“I’m not in it for the money, I can tell you that,” Wiswell says.

Often times when you hear the name Shakespeare you think back to your high school English classes in horror.  Diego Matamoros, the director of Pericles, explains that if someone doesn’t understand Shakespeare it’s not because they’re uneducated.  It’s because the actors in the play didn’t understand it either.  According to Matamoros, it’s not the words in theatre which are most important to understanding the characters on stage but what the actors playing the parts are thinking.

“I could say I love you, but if I’m thinking I hate that’s what the audience will get.”  The Gemini-award winner has wanted to put on this play for three years.  Now he finally has his chance.  He believes this play will make people think about how to deal with things beyond their own control.  Through all of Pericles’ losses the audience must ask themselves, “Is that a bad experience or does it just make him stronger?”  Matamoros says people are continually striving to have it easy, even though we don’t learn from things unless they’re hard.

He compares Pericles to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.  Not only are they both love stories with an adventurous edge, but they are also narrated by blind people.

“Every character is faceless at the beginning of a play because we don’t know who they are,” says Matamoros.

Pericles is narrated by the Gower, a group of 7 women with blindfolds over their eyes.  While the Gower are explaining what is happening at that moment in the play there is something called a “dumb show” going on in a “dumb show” going on in the background.  The dumb show is a short choreographed scene where a few of the characters go through certain actions to represent the Gower’s narration without actually saying anything themselves.  It serves to add different layers to the performance.

Penner has a more loose comparison for the show.

“This is not me, but some people have said it’s like an episode of Xena.”

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