Sunday, November 28, 2010

Pericles + Oliver < Fagin + Thenardier

When I was eight I played Oliver Twist in the Lakeside Players summer production of Oliver Twist. I was cast in the role of the boy to whom things happen, who stumbles into a world of rich character, and through fortune of birth and the sacrifices of the Artful Dodger, Nancy and Fagin, I undo their world of romantic villainy and am awarded for my inaction with a life of comfort to which I’m entitled because of my utterly saccharine goodness.

It’s a testament to the anti-magnitude of the role that my only memory of it is the scene where I ate a hot dog that the Artful Dodger shared with me and I bit off more than I could chew and had to hold up my finger indicating that she (Dodger was played by a girl) should wait for a second so I didn’t choke before I said my line. That moment is a pretty decent microcosm of my entire acting career.

Oliver is such a boring character. In the way that Cosette diminishes in the tragedy of Eponine’s unrequited love in Les Miserables, he vanishes in the shadow of personages of theatrical merit. Executors of large, emotional lives, tragic inner lives, and impossible wants.

This might seem an odd parallel to draw with Pericles, who is a hero, a man of consequence and valor. But for all his activity, he’s not a complex character… or even much of a character at all. He’s smart and brave and he goes on adventures that demonstrate how smart and brave he is. He solves riddles, runs from an incestuous king who wants to kill him, gets shipwrecked, wins a tournament of knights and marries a princess, gets separated from his wife and daughter, thinks they’re dead, finds them again and lives happily ever after as king.

            He sums himself up in the first scene when he is presented with a riddle that he must solve or die:


Like a bold champion I assume the lists,

Nor ask advice of any other thought

But faithfulness and courage. (1:1)


            My Riverside Shakespeare says that “lists” means “tournament grounds.” Pericles is a guy who needs only these two tools to tackle all of the problems he faces: faithfulness and courage.

            There’s something to be said for a nice, simple, heroic story about a man being brave in the face of hardship. I like a simple story on occasion. There’s that movie The Rock, where Nicolas Cage plays an FBI chemist who has to help Sean Connery and Michael Beihn break into Alcatraz and stop Ed Harris from launching chemical weapons at San Francisco. Nicolas Cage has to be brave in the face of hardship and save the day and his pregnant fiancé. It's simple AND it kicks ass.

            Pericles is the Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer Shakespearean play. But it is only partially Shakespeare’s. It’s thought that he outlined it, and gave it to George Wilkins to write. Unhappy with the product, Shakes re-wrote the final three acts.

            Of course it’s in these final three acts that we see some awesome verbal acrobatics as Pericles’s daughter, Marina, somersaults her way out of being raped by the Thénardier-like: Bawd, Boult and Pander who buy her off of some pirates thinking that they’re going to make a mint by selling her body. Here’s what she tells Boult to turn him off:


Thou hold’st a place for which the pained’st fiend

Of hell would not in reputation change.

Thou art damned door-keeper to every

Custrel that comes inquiring for his Tib.

To the choleric fisting of every rogue

Thy ear is liable; thy food is such

As hath been belch’d on by infected lungs. (4:6)



             These are the lives around Pericles. The riddle he has to solve at the beginning is presented to him by a king, and the reward for solving the riddle is the princess’s hand in marriage, but the answer to the riddle is that the king is sleeping with his daughter, so if you solve it, he will kill you. And if you don’t solve it, you will be killed too. When Pericles figured it out I was super-excited, I thought he was going to then find a way to rescue the girl and we were going to have this evil king as the monumental villain and we would meet the girl and the whole play would be a fascinating exploration of how he marries and saves this abused princess… WRONG. Pericles RUNS away and the king tries to have him killed. It’s like he wanders into potentially interesting situations, flirting with dangerous lives, rife with dramatic fodder, and then he gets shipwrecked and we never get to any of the fascinating villains aside from the three who try to pimp his daughter.

            But it’s a bigger sea that just his own play in which Pericles finds himself shipwrecked. If there were a panel discussion of Shakesperean title characters who would have a question for Pericles? When he’s sitting beside Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Henry V… He’s Shakespeare’s proverbial one-legged stepchild. Cousin Oliver from the Brady Bunch has more cultural gravitas than Pericles.

            Still, the play is apparently very effective in performance. In much the same way that The Rock is effective in performance. Personally I doubt there was anything effective about my performance of Oliver Twist. I remembered all of my lines which is good. At that age most of us aren’t capable of much acting, so they cast you based on the outstanding qualities of your personality. In my case, I think those qualities were large brown eyes and a decent, boyish smile that indicated an inherent innocence, optimism, and blandness onto which the audience could paste whatever absent qualities were dramatically prescribed.

            I guess I don’t mind that I was that person at age eight, but it wasn’t long before I wanted to be fiercely independent and clever, with the self-assurance to live beyond the realm of Christian morality.

It’s interesting to note that in the novels Oliver Twist and Les Miserables the villains come to much grimmer ends. Fagin is hanged, and although Thénardier gets money from Marius and goes to America… he becomes a slave trader there and well, no one wants to cheer for that.

We all want a chance to flirt with villainy, to waltz off the stage like Thénardier and his wife with the audience’s affections pickpocketed away from even the monumental Jean Valjean. Or to dance into the Sunset arm in arm with Fagin like Dodger at the end of Oliver… “Once a villain, you’re a villain to the end!

            But what if you’re Oliver? Then what are you to the end? A guy in a coffee shop reading Shakespeare?

Beats the gallows I guess.

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