Two River Theater’s ‘Pericles’ an epic theatrical event

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OK. Let’s just say it up front. “Pericles” is a play with problems and  almost nobody understands it. It’s one of Shakespeare’s last plays and some scholars believe he had a not-too-talented collaborator for half of it. It’s hardly ever staged because it doesn’t sell well.

But none of that deterred the Two River Theater company in Red Bank, NJ, from putting it on their  adventurous 2015-16 season schedule that includes an all-male “Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum” and the upcoming all-female “I Remember Mama.”

  Under the direction of David Schweitzer, with original music and lyrics by Rinde Eckert, “Pericles” was blown up you might say — taken apart and put back together —  to focus on the storytelling aspects. And we would expect nothing less from Schweitzer who is revered for his radical approach to theater and opera.  Same can be said for Eckert whose work as a composer, lyricist, writer, librettist, musician, performer and director whose work is seen mostly off-Broadway.

This Pericles, Prince of Tyre, gives Odysseus a run for the money when it comes to decades of traveling and sailing all over the eastern Mediterranean to escape a king who needs to keep an incestuous secret, to marry,  to have a child, to lose both wife and child, visit a  whorehouse, betrayed by a jealous queen, and — this being Shakespeare — reunited again as a family and planning a wedding.

“Pericles” is set in a bar at the end of the universe and the stories are told by seven cast members playing multiple parts and instruments (most of which you won’t recognize; the instruments, that is).

Eckert plays the storyteller Gower, with the rest of the cast including J. Clint Allen, Philippe Bowgen, Ellen Harvey, Kevin Mambo, Nikki Massoud and Mary Testa. Their credits range from experimental  theater to mainstream Broadway, with this production being the kind of avant-garde piece one usually seeks out way below 42nd Street.

And that’s a good thing.

As the audience makes its way to their seats, the sounds of an approaching storm mix with those of the band warming up as the actors slowing drift into the bar before an explosive crash of thunder  pushes Gower violently  through the door. He snaps his fingers and a follow spot clicks on him as he checks each players’  ticket — passport? — before the storytelling begins. At the end, the  players bundle up and leave hurriedly en mass. When Gower exits he raises his hands in the air as red and blue police light shine in.

OooooKay. I’m still thinking about the meaning of the ending. And that’s a good thing.

During the performance, which Bertolt Brecht would thoroughly enjoy, the actors change costumes in front of us, flip the bird,  curse, at times, singing to sound annoying, pick up and play various musical devices/instruments, move set pieces and even straighten everything up at the end.  Gower chooses the parts they play and not everyone is happy with what they get.

They know they are on  stage in a play, We know they know. They know we know. We are not seduced into believing what we see has any resemblance to reality. It’s the best example of epic theater I’ve seen in years. We aren’t drawn in. And that’s a good thing.

We are enticed to think about how unfair real life can be. Circumstances beyond our control determine our fate. In other words, shit happens. Deal with it.

And that’s a good thing, too.

Helping Schweitzer achieve this kind of theater of alienation that also should be congratulated are scenic designer Caleb Wertenbaker, costume designer Gabriel Berry, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, sound designer Ryan Rumery, wig designer Cookie Jordan, musical direction by Ian Axness and choreographer Dan Knechtges. Phenomenal collaboration.

“Pericles” continues through May 8. For more info and to buy tickets, visit the Two River Theater’s website $20 to $65; 732-345-1400