“To Sing a Song That Old Was Sung”: Inside SOU’s Production of Pericles

SOU Theater’s last showing of Pericles was on Sunday of May 26th. It is the third and final production of the Theater program this year. Directed by David McCandless (SOU’s current Professor of Theater and Director of Shakespeare Studies) and with a run time of two hours and forty five minutes, the play is an ambitious take on a sprawling epic that covers a collection of storylines spanning a generation. Jaunty and melodramatic all at once, Pericles combines a live music team, song and dance numbers, and a creative synthesis of Shakespearean and modern language for a very memorable performance.

Pericles is something of an oddity in the Shakespearean canon. In fact, there were and are doubts that Shakespeare even wrote the play to begin with, although the consensus today is that if nothing else he constructed the lion’s share of it, along with a much less famous writer named George Wilkins. Unique among Shakespearean plays, Pericles puts heavy emphasis on story, with consistent narration and a structure that clearly divides the play into separate but interwoven narratives told by a single storyteller (Alexis Edwards).

It is divided into two overarching stories. The first is the adventures of the titular Pericles (Aidan Jenkins), Prince of Tyre. The second part is the story of Marina (Gabi Vidaña), Pericles’s estranged daughter, and the family’s eventual reunification. The play opens with Pericles in the City of Antioch, courting the daughter of its tyrant, Antiochus (Trevor Bikos). To win her hand in marriage, Pericles must solve Antiochus’s riddle on pain of death, something he does without any trouble– only to discover that the answer is so horrifying that saying it out loud would see him killed anyway. To save face and spare his country from war, Pericles flees his home and takes up life on the high seas.

Sources suggest that the play was well received at its original debut, whatever its authorship and other oddities. And obviously, it has persisted to this day, still shown to audiences all over the world. The SOU Theater Department’s interpretation was particularly unusual and interesting because of how it worked with music and dancing, including a non lyrical dance number of Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For a Hero. Director David McCandless explains: “the play feels as if it needs music, given the emotional depths it plumbs, and the heights it reaches.” He reminds his audience that “The opening line of the original play is ‘to sing a song that old was sung.’”

Pericles spends most of the play in the ocean or next to it. The sea’s unpredictability and the difficulty of traversing vast stretches of ocean are one of the story’s main plot points. It is also what divides the play’s two main storylines. Pericles’s earlier exploits are separated from Marina’s by storms. One beaches him at the court of King Simonides (Connor Lomeli), where he meets and later marries his daughter, Thaisa (M. J. Clark). It’s also a storm, on the way back from Tyre, that destroys Pericles’s new life, separating him from his wife and newborn daughter. When Pericles believes that Marina has died right before reuniting with her, he once again banishes himself to a life at sea with the implied intention of dying there.

These two separations– both of which Pericles believes to be deaths– are the play’s lowest points, and are accompanied by music fitting of such a plunge. Both characters are paragons of virtue, which makes the positive turns in Shakespeare’s lengthy romance feel especially well earned.

Pericles is the third and final play that the Theater Department offered in the 2023-2024 academic year. Three performances will be offered next year as well: Tina Howe’s Museum (November 14th to November 24th, 2024), William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (February 20th to March 2nd, 2025), and Frederico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding (May 22nd to June 1st, 2025). Southern Oregon Students will once again be offered two free tickets for each production.

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