Riverside Theatre returns, triumphant, to Lower City Park, with ‘Pericles’

Riverside Theatre presents: Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Lower City Park Festival Stage — through July 7

The cast of Riverside Theatre's 'Pericles' -- photo by Bob Goodfellow
The cast of Riverside Theatre’s ‘Pericles’ — photo by Bob Goodfellow

School’s been out for a couple weeks, and the temperatures have long since surpassed a comfortable range, but it feels like it’s never really summer in Iowa City until we can partake of what has become a tradition — gathering in Lower City Park, perhaps with a drink in hand or even a small picnic, and getting ready to enjoy a classic play by professional actors as the sun sets around us. I’m referring of course to Riverside Theatre’s outdoor summer series, which since 2000 has been bringing classics — both by Shakespeare and by other notable writers — to the stage for an engaging outdoor theatre experience.

In recent years, the future of the company’s outdoor offerings has been in question, between frequent flooding of the Iowa River and the city’s possible plans for reconstruction. It was refreshing news to hear that Riverside brought the festival back where it belongs — under the stars — with Pericles, Prince of Tyre (itself a tale of loss and reunification) and Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West.

Pericles is not one of Shakespeare’s better-known works. It isn’t even included in the First Folio. Indeed, the announcement of the title left this Bard Nerd (who’s been involved with productions of such esoteric works as Measure for Measure and Cymbeline) scouring Wikipedia for a summary. For the record, Pericles is one of the later romances; it tells the story of a prince who, fleeing the shores of one kingdom rather than reveal to the public the nasty things that are going on at court, finds himself shipwrecked, then falling in love, then shipwrecked again and separated from his wife and daughter, who must make their own way in the world because he believes them to be dead. Of course, this is (probably) the product an older, more sentimental Shakespeare than the fellow who wrote King Lear, so the three are eventually reunited through theatre magic, coincidence and a little help from the gods.

It’s always a treat to take in one of Shakespeare’s romances; the tone has a certain relaxed mastery — a meandering playfulness that is still as engaging as the frantically urgent early works. Though a lot more is going on in these stories, the writing is very condensed, so the plays take up less stage time, yet still produce the feeling of an epic journey. This production of Pericles succeeds particularly well in creating this of a broad world out of relatively few moving parts. Shelly Ford’s scenic design transforms the flexible set from a royal hall to a ship at sea to a brothel quickly and seamlessly, and Emily Ganfield’s striking costumes are as evocative on the vaguely fascist rulers of Antioch as they are on the mysterious vestal virgins of Ephesus. Director Christine Kellogg helps the company portray a number of very different cultures as Pericles journeys throughout the Mediterranean.

Pericles at Riverside Theatre
Dennis William Grimes as Pericles, Prince of Tyre in Riverside Theatre’s current production — photo by Bob Goodfellow

The ensemble does some great physical work to bring the background characters to life, whether stern lords or rowdy knights or slovenly prostitutes. It’s this attention to detail that makes Pericles’ world a fully inhabited place. Rian Jairell stands out as someone who can portray a broad range of characters, beginning as Thaliard, a skulking assassin, transforming into the magnanimous ruler Simonides and ending his run as the comic Boult. Each character is distinct, and Jairell is very engaged with both his fellow actors and the audience.

Natalie Dickens plays Marina, the estranged daughter of Pericles. At first it’s unclear whether she has the stage presence to pull off this very challenging role, but in her first major scene, with the governor Lysimachus (Wesley Scott), she shows Marina to be a fiery and powerful woman. Marina has been kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel, but she refuses to play along, and, much to the chagrin of her comical scene partners, begins reforming the men who try to win her over. Lysimachus is one such, and by the time they end their shared scene she has transformed him, convincing him to pursue her honestly as his wife. This is some excellent playwriting, as we get to see a character change the cynical world around her through sheer determination, and Dickens plays out the scene deftly. Where she really shines, however, is with Pericles himself (Dennis William Grimes), who she only meets at the very end. As the two are reunited, the actors’ shared joy brings out the real magic of Shakespearean romance — the persistent irrational belief that faith and virtue will be rewarded, that those scattered by fate will live to share a happy ending.

Grimes himself is a joy. He’s a very skilled actor, and takes care to listen to each of his scene partners. It’s exciting to go on this journey with him, particularly at the end. His silent grief at his loss, and his subsequent exuberant joy at finding his daughter again, fills his entire physical frame. It is hard not to smile as these two share a moment of pure wonder at finding each other after they believed all hope is lost. This writer has high hopes that Grimes will return to this stage in future seasons.

It’s great to have this series back outdoors again; it’s fun to watch any well-done play on a beautiful summer night, and Pericles is a unique offering. Stay tuned next week for Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre runs in rep with The Fair Maid of the West through July 10 (Pericles closes July 7). Tickets are available at Riverside’s website or by calling the theatre box office at 319-338-7672.

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