Thursday, March 10, 2016

Off-Broadway Revivals—Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” Sam Shepard's "Buried Child"

Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Trevor Nunn
Performances through April 10, 2016
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY

Buried Child
Written by Sam Shepard; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through April 3, 2016
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Gia Crovatin and Christian Carmago in Pericles (photo: Henry Grossman)

One of Shakespeare's most problematic plays, the rarely-performed Pericles has divided critics, audiences and performers for centuries with its knotty language, incredulous plotting, dicey characterizations and the fact that the Bard most likely wrote it with a collaborator. 

But this very messiness obviously appealed to director Trevor Nunn; unlike King Lear, for example, Pericles can survive desecration: extensive cutting, turning dialogue into song lyrics and presenting the whole thing as a dance and music pageant doesn't hurt as much as it would Shakespeare's masterpieces.

The result is still a bumpy ride, but Pericles—which shares its incoherence and flights of fancy with fellow late romances Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale—stretches its patchwork wings, and Nunn's creative staging helps smooth over arid sections, helped along by Sean Davey's pleasantly melodic songs, Stephen Strawbridge's incisive lighting, Brian Brooks's accommodating movement and Constance Hoffman's colorful but never ostentatious costumes.  

As Prince Pericles—who believes he's lost both his beloved wife and young daughter, spending 16 years lost in a figurative wilderness until the ending makes everything right as a kind of humane spin on the cataclysmically tragic climax of King Lear—Christian Camargo makes little impression through the first three-quarters of the play, even garbling the lyrical poetry. But in the final scene, showing the combined physical and emotional toll his losses have taken on him, he suddenly springs to life and touchingly portrays Pericles' grief turning into exultant happiness.

If Lilly Englert is a too-petulant Marina, Pericles' beloved daughter, then Gia Crovatin makes Pericles' wife Thaisa come alive winningly, and there's solid support from Will Swenson and John Keating in several roles. But the real star of Pericles is Trevor Nunn, whose resourceful directing keeps this difficult and even risible late Shakespeare romance buoyant and, finally, moving.

Taissa Farmiga, Nat Woolf and Ed Harris in Buried Child (photo: Monique Carboni)

Sam Shepard's Buried Child, which won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has not aged well, at least in Scott Elliott's disjointed new production. This blatantly symbolic exploration of the ultimate dysfunctional family was an obvious tearing off of the band-aid that covered America's festering wounds from Vietnam, Watergate and other societal ills. Now, the play's surreal touches seem uneasily out of an especially grotesque Harold Pinter play, as parents and children escalate their attempts at treating one another badly for three intermissionless acts of nearly two hours.

It opens with couch-bound grandfather Dodge mumbling to himself in disgust as his wife Halie yells downstairs to him. This couple's estrangement is brought into further relief  once the rest of the family enters: dimwitted eldest son Tilden, his one-legged brute of a brother Bradley, Tilden's son Vince and Vince's sweetly naive girlfriend Shelly (both of whom upset the apple cart to an extent), and Reverend Dewis, who shows up with Halie after a night of carousing. 

As power plays are carried out and secrets are unburied among these damaged people, Shepard's cryptic dialogue strains for the non-sequiturs of Pinter: at one point Shelly seems an allusion to Ruth in Pinter’s The Homecoming, poised to become a new matriarch of sorts. That is soon snuffed out, but Vince—first unrecognized by everyone when he arrives—seems poised to take over the family farm, as Halie retreats upstairs, his father Tilden and Uncle Bradley both tamed and grandfather Dodge stock still in front of the sofa.

Shepard's metaphorical title is obliquely explained by a family history story told haltingly by Dodge, then needlessly literalized by Tilden walking upstairs with something cradled in his arms at play's end, both too much and not enough. Despite estimable acting by the men, notably Ed Harris as Dodge and Nat Woolf as Vince—on the debit side, Amy Madigan is too shrill as Halie and Taissa Farmiga too innocent as Shelly—director Elliott never finds a coherent way to frame Shepard's strident piece of rotted Norman Rockwell. 

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