Ithaca Shakespeare Festival rehearsals

Scenes from the Ithaca Shakespeare Festival rehearsals as the ensemble prepares for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.”

Pablo Picasso once said you give people something they know, and then lead them into something they don’t know.

It seems the Ithaca Shakespeare Company (ISC) is attempting that strategy with their 2019 summer productions. They are putting on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which everybody knows and loves, and “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” which nobody has ever heard of (admittedly, using myself as a reference here).

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is my favorite Shakespeare play. But I never heard of “Pericles.” I’m a smarty-pants theatre-reviewer guy who fell in love with Shakespeare at age 17 in 1970, and has written about the ISC for several years now.

At the risk of repeating myself: the Ithaca Shakespeare Company’s productions are the absolute best thing in the Ithaca summer.

William Shakespeare is unequivocally the greatest writer in the English language. Quite possibly, the greatest writer in any human language. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is easily his greatest comedy. It is outrageously funny, charming and magical.

Shakespeare scholar (and all-around pooh-bah) Harold Bloom, in his magisterial “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,” writes that the play’s ostensible protagonist, Nick Bottom, is one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, up there with Hamlet and Falstaff and Rosalind.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream" seems the essence of love, of magic, of summer itself, all somehow distilled into one irresistible, effervescent package.

On the other hand, I knew nothing—zilch—about “Pericles.” So I read up on it.

“Pericles” is the first play of Shakespeare’s final period, accompanying his tragicomic romances like “The Tempest.”

And he collaborated on “Pericles” with a writer named George Wilkins. And, for what it’s worth, I fell in love with “Pericles.” The story is absolutely, over-the-top, bat-guano crazy. 

How crazy?

Here’s a description from “The Norton Shakespeare” (by a guy named Walter Cohen from our own Cornell University):

“In ‘Pericles,’ a king adorns his palace walls with the skulls of his victims. A princess commits incest with her father. Another princess is kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel. Famine brings a city to its knees. An entire crew is lost in a tumultuous storm. Two royal families are sent to fiery destruction.”

There are pimps, assassins, murderous monarchs, a burial-at-sea, a near-death experience, a miraculous rebirth, and an appearance by Diana, the goddess of chastity.

What’s not to love?

What “Pericles” reminded me of was Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” (also from his final tragicomic romance period), which struck me as a sort of twisted, adult fairy tale. I think I found myself enchanted with “Pericles” because it is so preposterous. The story progresses with something akin to dream-logic. 

From mid-June to early July, I spent some time with the ISC as they rehearsed—first at the Just Because Center in Ithaca, and then at Robert H. Treman State Park, where they have constructed a magnificent set (designed by Norm Johnson who taught acting at Ithaca College).

The ISC artistic director, Stephen Ponton, is directing “Pericles.” I love watching Steve work. He’s brilliant at directing. And I think one of the things that struck me about the way he’s staging “Pericles” is that it seems sort of expressionistic.

Often a play is set at one location—a living room or something. “Pericles” jumps around crazily to numerous locations in the Mediterranean of the Ancient World.

In Stephen Greenblatt’s mega-brilliant book “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,” Greenblatt writes: “The strange play ‘Pericles’…is…unmoored, shifting from Antioch to Tyre to Tarsus to Pentapolis (in what is now Libya) to Ephesus to Mytilene (on the island Lesbos).” 

And it seems to me that Steve Ponton is using expressionistic theatre techniques to accomplish this…using a mixture of storytelling and theatre. One such technique is the use of a Chorus. 

In the original Shakespeare, the story is narrated by a poet named John Gower…a 14th-century author from whom Shakespeare swiped the story. But Ponton has replaced Gower with a supra-human chorus, like they employed in ancient Greek theatre (played wonderfully by Samantha Sloma). The result is a sort of post-modern Shakespeare.

And the young actor playing Pericles, James Counihan, is immensely appealing in the role.

Pericles sort of reminds me of a Kurt Vonnegut character. Vonnegut had this running theme that we are all pushed around by forces much larger than ourselves. Or as Cohen puts it in “The Norton Shakespeare”: “Characteristically, Pericles does not act; he is acted upon.” Pericles reminds me of Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse-Five”…shoved around by vast, gigantic forces—firestorms and flying saucers for Billy, oceanic storms and shipwrecks for Pericles.

And both characters share a sort of dogged sweetness, a basic decency and likeability even in insane situations.

I hung out with the cast and crew of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on June 24 and 26 at the Just Because Center, and on July 3 and 6 at Treman State Park.

My high school drama teacher, Jon J. Barden, who had a genius for working with young people, used to call drama “the living art.” 

I thought of this watching director Amina Omari’s version of the play. Some of her casting choices were so unexpected that I realized that she was sculpting with living human beings, and coming up with a new interpretation of the Bard’s greatest comedy.

Some standouts:

  • Erin Lockett’s Puck may be the most engaging Puck I’ve ever seen. Her performance has a sort of gymnast’s physicality to it that somehow perfectly evokes the other-worldliness of Puck.

  • Jahmar Ortiz and Kylie Heyman do double duty as both Oberon and Titania (the fairy king and queen) and Theseus and Hippolyta (the mythological royalty) and are fabulous at both sets of roles. 

  • My Ithaca Times colleague Ross Haarstad is playing the central role of Nick Bottom, an irresistibly funny performance.

  • Eric Michael Hambury should get a special Tony for The Funniest Thisby of All Time.

Treman State Park is one of the most beautiful locations on the North American continent, with gorges, and picnic and swimming areas, and hiking trails with mile-after-mile of waterfalls. It is such an impossibly perfect place to stage “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that it seems like some kind of cosmic synchronicity. 

I’ve been suffering from bouts of depression and weltschmerz lately…but I noticed that the only time I actually felt happy was when I was with the Ithaca Shakespeare Company watching “Pericles” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

(It was what Ray Bradbury would call A Medicine for Melancholy.)

Thus, I’m fervently recommending both plays in the hope it will have a similar effect on you, the theater-loving reader.

 A Midsummer Night’s Dream: July 12, 14, 18, 20, 26, 28. Pericles: July 11, 13, 19, 21, 25, 27.All shows at 6 p.m. at Robert H. Treman State Park (129 Upper Park Rd. – Upper entrance off NYS Route 327).

To purchase tickets online, and for more info, visit: ithacashakespeare.org.

The Ithaca Shakespeare Company stages a known and unknown at Robert Treman State Park

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