Late in Pericles Wet, there's a sword fight where one of the combatants carries both a blade and a baby. Murri Lazaroff-Babin plays a cranky sailor who wears a turquoise bandana and speaks in a baffling Johnny-Depp-meets-Liam Neeson growl. In one of his most ridiculous moments, he attempts to duel a fearsome pirate (Andrea White) while clutching a sword in one hand and a newborn in the other. It's a strange and uproarious moment of slapstick madness—one of many in a play that basks in wild absurdities.
Portland playwright Ellen Margolis' new adaptation of Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre is premiering with Portland Shakespeare Project under the direction of Michael Mendelsohn. Pericles Wet is a delightfully bizarre tornado of tragedy, comedy and seafaring misadventures. Its mood and tone shift rapidly as the story shuffles from rape and incest to mistaken-identity shenanigans. Pericles Wet doesn't always make sense, but never fails to keep you engrossed and entertained.
The voyage begins with Pericles (Ben Newman), the prince of Tyre, struggling to solve a riddle. If he succeeds, he'll wed Hesperides (Alex Ramirez de Cruz); if he fails, her father, Antiochus (David Bodin) will execute him. When Pericles realizes that the answer to the riddle is a dark secret, he manages to talk his way out of an early death and opt for exile instead, beginning a strange ocean journey.
Margolis peppers her version of Shakespeare's story with distinctly non-Elizabethan exclamations like, "No speako the lingo." The loose, linen costumes initially suggest that the narrative is unfolding in a vaguely ancient past, but that possibility is blurred by a character who's a taxi-driving nun (also played by Lazaroff-Babin).
Amidst the strangeness, at least one concrete theme emerges—the contrast between the cruel oppression of Hesperides and Pericles' freedom to lackadaisically wander the globe.
But attacking male privilege never seems to be the play's chief purpose. Pericles Wet is best savored as surrealist entertainment. From the crash of waves to the cries of infants, every decibel of the sound design immerses you in the play's wondrous set: a barren, blue-tinged stage that makes it seem as if the drama is unfolding in a vast, sunlit sea.
Equally delightful is Newman, who effortlessly tackles both the play's comedic and tragic moments. Within the 90-minute production, he goes from howling absurd interjections like "Poseidon's member!" to finely sketching Pericles' transformation from a young man to a father to a lonely, blinded old man.
Margolis' rewrite hints that Pericles' downfall is karmic punishment for his refusal to help Hesperides escape her monstrous father. From the death of his wife to the disappearance of his daughter (both of whom are played with soulful spunkiness by Shannon Mastel), his misfortunes are framed as the consequence of his cowardice.
The only way he can redeem himself is by attempting to make peace with Hesperides in a chilling scene that brings the play's rage against the patriarchy into focus.
In that fraught reunion, Newman and Ramirez de Cruz create a delicate duet of shame and rage. Somehow, Margolis and Mendelson have created landscape in which both magnificent caricatures like Lazaroff-Babin's sailor and disturbing abuses of power can coexist.
SEE IT: Pericles Wet is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1516 SW Alder St., portlandshakes.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday. Through Dec. 17. $30.