Play:        “Pericles”

Group:        The Black Rep

Venue:        Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square

Dates:        Wednesday through Sunday through January 30

Tickets:    From $17 to $47; contact 314-534-3810, 314-534-1111 or www.metrotix.com

Story:    Pericles, Prince of Tyre, is visiting Antioch, where treacherous King Antiochus has offered his daughter to any man who can solve his deadly riddle.  Unfortunately, the riddle deals with the king’s incest, so while a wrong reply leads to death so also does the correct one.  Pericles knows the answer but asks for time for his response and then flees Antioch.  When he arrives home his confidante Helicanus advises him to leave again before Antioch’s hired killer assassinates him.

Pericles arrives in Tarsus, where he helps the city through a famine.  Moving on, he is shipwrecked in Pentapolis, where local fishermen tell him about a tournament in which the winner will be awarded King Simonides’ daughter Thaisa in marriage.  Pericles triumphs and marries the smitten Thaisa.  However, she dies at sea in childbirth and her body is thrown overboard in a casket.  The casket is recovered in Ephesus, where Thaisa is revived by a physician named Cerimon.  Thaisa, thinking Pericles has died, becomes a priestess, while Pericles takes their daughter Marina to live with King Creon and Queen Dionyza of Tarsus.  Two decades later, Marina’s beauty causes Dionyza to plot her murder so as not to outshine her own daughter, sell her to slave traders and tell Pericles she has died.  The grief-stricken Pericles embarks on further adventures, eventually circumstantially finding both his daughter and wife for a most happy ending.

Highlights:    “Pericles” is one of Shakespeare’s most obscure works, one which scholars believe he contributed at most half of the lines to the story, and is rarely performed.  Director Andrea Frye and dramaturg Chris Anthony, however, who both were involved last season in The Black Rep’s exhilarating take on “Romeo & Juliet,” have breathed life into this seldom-seen gem with a fresh and entertaining African-American spin.

Starting with locales in the Mali and Ashanti empires of pre-colonial Africa and moving to additional settings in mid-20th century Haiti, Cuba, the Gullah Islands off the coast of Georgia and finally New Orleans in the 1920s, they establish a time-traveling and engaging adventure filled with pop culture delights such as pirates, tempests, magic, mystery, sex, love, intrigue and anything else they can squeeze into the production’s two acts and two hours and 45 minutes of performance.  Most of the ride is adventurous and lots o’ fun, although the pace does drag perceptibly for much of the final 30 minutes.

Other Info:    Curiously, Frye chooses Ka’ramuu Kush to take the title role, when a much stronger and convincing portrayal is delivered by Chauncy Thomas as Pericles’ confidante Helicanus.  While Thomas conveys power and controlled intensity, Kush seems more introspective and even tentative with some of Pericles’ lines.  His performance is OK but is overshadowed by Thomas’ charisma.

    Robert A. Mitchell shines as the genial narrator, Gower, dressed in garish peacock attire courtesy of costume designer Sarita Fellows to emphasize his dapper and droll demeanor.  There’s plenty of solid supporting work by a polished cast that includes Rich Pisarkiewicz as incestuous King Antiochus as well as the bon vivant Simonides, Susie Wall as the dastardly Dionyza, Mitchell as her acquiescent husband Creon and Joe Hanrahan as the assassin Thaliard, a New Orleans pimp and sundry other parts.

    Linda Kennedy is delightful as the mystical Cerimon as well as Marina’s kindly nurse Lychorida, with Erik Kilpatrick, Theo Wilson, Ryan Cunningham, Dwight House and Terell Randall shining in several supporting roles.  Patrese McClain is marvelous as the lusty and loyal Thaisa, while Sharisa Whatley, whose ‘star’ power emanates from virtually all of her performances, once again is enchanting in her portrayals of Antiochus’ incestuous daughter as well as the chaste and intelligent Marina.

    Technical efforts include Dunsi Dai’s impressively atmospheric set design which incorporates a background that allows for scenes from a storm at sea to a swanky Havana nightclub to the bordellos of New Orleans, all handsomely illuminated with Mark Varns’ lighting design.  Robin Weatherall’s sound design provides a myriad of music evocative of the various settings, from the drums of Africa to the Latin style of Cuba to New Orleans jazz, although sometimes it unfortunately drowns out dialogue.  Fellows’ costumes are bright, multi-faceted and appealing, while Heather Beal’s choreography enlivens that Havana dance floor.

    All in all, this version of “Pericles” is a lot like the story:  Light, entertaining and definitely something you’re not likely to come across anytime soon.

Rarting:    A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.