Shakespeare al fresco: Muse of Fire’s “Pericles” continues for the next two weeks in Ingraham Park, behind the Civic Center. Photo from Muse of Fire

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After a 20-year career, Shakespeare was the most popular playwright in the country, celebrated for witty romantic comedies, soul-searching tragedies, and the rich lyricism of his “sugared sonnets.” After the success of “Othello,” “Macbeth,” and “King Lear,” Shakespeare obliged the new taste for nostalgia, old-fashioned fables and medieval romances by offering  a new form now called the “romances” – “Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest.”  

These plays abandon much of the naturalism of Shakespeare’s earlier masterpieces in favor of plots involving sea voyages, shipwrecks, lost children miraculously found, wild changes of fortune, and hints of magic and divine intervention. Unlike the self-conscious tragic heroes who reflect on their own moral conflicts and choices in realistic settings, the figures in the romances undergo psychic journeys played out across vast, almost mythic landscapes of time and space.

“Pericles” presents particular challenges, which are taken up with gusto by Muse of Fire in its final summer production. The company’s text-based approach and talented young cast – many playing double and triple roles – give us a pared-down, gimmick-free production that allows the play’s moral truths and eerie magic to emerge even while we laugh at its absurdities.

The plot verges on the ridiculous, and characters appear and disappear with such alarming speed that we need a narrator (charmingly embodied by alternating members of the cast) to explain what is going on. In the first half of the play – so silly and so clunkily versified that many believe it was written by a collaborator – the hero Pericles woos a princess who can be won only by solving a riddle. Unfortunately the riddle reveals the princess’s incestuous relationship to her father the king, and once Pericles figures this out, he must flee to escape the king’s hired assassin. His flight sets in motion a series of further adventures, including shipwreck, the competition for the hand of a second princess through a knightly tournament, another tragedy at sea in which wife and daughter are lost, and some miraculous recoveries.

Long-time company veteran Reggie Robinson Jr. brings authentic passion to the role of the perennially unlucky Prince of Tyre. He plays the hero as an initially naïve figure who must learn not to trust appearances and to take the blows of fortune.  Yet a subtler danger for the hero is moral passivity, which Mr. Robinson effectively dramatizes as a disabling melancholy shading into despair.

The play’s comic moments are particularly welcome amidst the serial misfortunes. Shakespeare provides funny fishermen, wisecracking pimps, and a king who likes to play practical jokes. The cast is excellent at conveying the shifts from tragedy to comedy without a moment’s break between scenes. Particularly adept are David Dowd (as a soldier, a fisherman, and the comic villain Boult, who attempts to rape the heroine and then is persuaded to help her instead) and Amy Malcum, who almost steals the show as Helicanus, Pericles’ lieutenant governor, and the Bawd who tries to train Marina to be a prostitute. Also notable is Arielle Leverett as Cerimon, a doctor with some remarkable powers.

The second half of the play is vastly superior to the first, and has led many critics to believe that it is the “authentic” Shakespeare. Juxtaposed to Pericles’ wanderings are the adventures of his lost daughter, Marina. Siobhan Reddy-Best’s intense performance allows the audience finally to participate in the emotional life of the play. She plays Marina as a girl physically vulnerable but morally fierce and uncompromising, whose virtue and rhetorical skill triumph over a murderous stepmother (nicely played by Marie Tredway without a hint of parody), kidnapping pirates, and a trio of brothel-keepers who try to force her into prostitution.  Marina’s almost magical power converts even the licentious governor, Lysimachus, (the delightfully oily Nick Caesar): “Had I brought hither a corrupted mind,” he tells her, “Thy speech had altered it.”

Director Conner Wilson writes that the play represents the “journey of a man desperately searching for a family; and in 1610, one year after writing ‘Pericles’ and roughly 19 years after he first left his childhood home, Shakespeare leaves London and returns to Stratford and to his family.”

“Pericles,” free to the public, can be seen Aug. 26 and 27 and Sept. 2 and 3 at Ingraham Park behind the Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave.