RED BANK: A BARD AT THE END OF THE WORLD

Actor-singer-composer-musician Rinde Eckert talks about creating the music for the Two River Theater production of “Pericles,” which begins previews this weekend. (Video courtesy of the Two River Theater.)

Even as passionate a cheerleader as Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias is forced to admit that Pericles, Prince of Tyre is “one of Shakespeare’s plays that has frustrated his fans” —  the result of its being “most obviously the result of a quirky collaboration with another playwright (or two).”

A sprawling smorgasbord of mythology and melodrama that boasts sensational plot points (incest! pirates! sexual slavery!) and more scenery than can be chewed through in a single sitting, the late-period romance fairly begs, as Dias declares, for “an interpretive team of theater artists who love it for the splendor of its quirks, while working to bring its disparate selves together.”

When Pericles goes up in previews on April 16 at Two River Theater, it will appear to have finally met its quirk-loving Dream Team. Celebrated director David Schweizer and Tony-nominated choreographer Dan Knechtges are joined here by a multi-talented, multi-tasking artistic force whose creative fingerprints are all over this project: Rinde Eckert, a writer, composer, musician, designer, educator (at Princeton University) and performing artist who devised some 40 original and adapted songs for this never-before-seen production.

Appearing as the tale’s narrator, John Gower, (as well as the older version of Pericles), the Grammy winner and Pulitzer Prize nominee frames the action that’s set in “a bar at the end of the world” — all while performing his original score as a member of the onstage band. Philippe Bowgen heads a cast of young Broadway veterans and pros as the young Pericles, a prince who’s chased around the ancient Mediterranean world by a vengeful king (Kevin Mambo, of Two River’s Seven Guitars) in the production that opens officially on April 22.

The Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to the plucky Rinde (rhymes with “Lucky Lindy”) in advance of this weekend’s first preview performances.

redbankgreen: Thanks for finding some moments to talk with us about Pericles, a play that, let’s face it, doesn’t usually make anyone’s short list of Shakespearean masterworks, and that, maybe more so than any other Shakespeare work, is regarded as being only partially his work.

RINDE ECKERT: My wife (actor-playwright Ellen McLaughlin) just did a new updated adaptation of it, and there were people, Shakespeare experts and scholars, who questioned what she had done with the play. She asked them to cite a memorable line from the play, and they couldn’t do it. Not one Shakespearean scholar could come up with one significant quote from Pericles.

About half of it, the first half, has been attributed to a man that Shakespeare knew: a bar owner by the name of George Wilkins. People tend to have a much different idea of who Shakespeare really was… The reality is that he ran a theater, which means he was under pressure to put up a show; he had a deadline to make. And there probably came a time when the show that he was working on just wasn’t ready. Wilkins could have come to him and said, ‘I’ve got a couple of acts of something here, let’s see what we can do with it.’ And the end result was that Pericles was one of the most popular plays of its day! It’s got everything in the book thrown into it… pirates, brothels, incest, storms at sea. And you can see how it could have prepared the way for The Tempest.

It’s interesting that both you and your wife took some new and distinctly different looks at this relatively overlooked play at the same time, with her translating the original text into contemporary English, and you exploring the musical opportunities in the story. So is this particular project your baby, in that you brought the concept to Two River?

David [Schweizer, with whom Eckert worked on the Obie winning, MOBY DICK-inspired AND GOD CREATED GREAT WHALES] and I decided that this was something that we wanted to tackle… and for me, an opportunity to do music in a lighter vein. I’ve always flirted with the idea of burlesque as opposed to the idea of the sacred, and that’s one reason why I love this play. It has that interplay of the profane and the sacred. It starts with a grotesque incest scene, and goes on to have appearances by the goddess Diana. And there’s that interplay between the high and the low that shows up in so much of Shakespeare. He would move from scenes of great philosophical impact down to pure burlesque, and in between the monarchs and nobles, he’d always have characters like gravediggers and doorkeepers as part of the action.

I think that Shakespeare saw things in it that meant something to him. He was away from his family for the most part, separated by 20 miles, which was not an easy distance to travel in those days. He barely knew his daughter, and the recognition scene at the end of this play, when Pericles recognizes the daughter that he thought he’d lost, is really very beautiful.

It also plays with the ideas of the masculine and the feminine, which Shakespeare was constantly exploring. At the end of the play, the Prince is replaced by his daughter as ruler of Tyre. This was written around the time that Elizabeth I, who was such a strong and influential ruler, had died, and James I, a much weaker ruler, had taken the throne.

There’s also a sense of hurry about this play, where Pericles travels from place to place, a step ahead of the vengeful King Antiochus… an urgency, a rootlessness to it, which is quite cogent during this time when the world is experiencing a refugee crisis.

What’s particularly interesting is that you’re framing the story, which takes place in a variety of locales, inside what’s being called “a bar at the end of the world.” It harkens back to your mentioning that Shakespeare’s collaborator, Mr. Wilkins, was a bar owner… And it suggests that the Bard could have done a bang-up job on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

We felt that we belonged in the tavern. It’s kind of an isolated island in a storm, a place to get away from somebody or something. You make your home where you find it, and the tavern here is a repository for discarded people… a sort of defunct grand hotel bar, but with a little warmth to it. All of the people in there are there for their own reasons, and from diverse walks of life, but the setting and the telling of this story brings them together. So we’re in a sacred place when we’re there in the tavern. There’s a need to find immediate coherence to everything, and in this place it’s art that makes us coherent.

So you’ve got yourself introducing the tale as John Gower, who was based on a real-life poet from the time of Chaucer, and you’re also playing the old Pericles, AND you’re performing with the onstage band directed by Ian Axness. Is it safe to assume that you’re onstage for the duration?

I tend never to leave the stage. They just leave me out there. I got a hammered dulcimer for this project. I became very interested in that instrument, and we’re working with a steel drum, lots of stringed instruments like banjo, mandolin, ukelele. I get to play a flute made out of the top of a pine tree, and there are all sorts of percussion instruments. I finally get to play the bongos!

You’ve created about 40 songs for the project, we’re guessing some of which are original, and some of them set to things found in the play, like the tricky riddle that the evil King poses to Pericles?

We perform the riddle with Will [Bernard] playing a grunge guitar underneath. But the first part is mostly my lyrics, and as the piece progresses into what Shakespeare actually wrote, it becomes more of an adaptation from his text.

A good example of what Shakespeare did to make this play work, and what we’re doing with it from there, is when Marina [Pericles’ daughter] is about to be killed, and just then a band of pirates come in, grab her and go. Why? Because Shakespeare knew it was the easiest way to get her off stage! So while Shakespeare was simply being practical and writing his way out of a situation, I wanted to write a trio piece for the three pirates, in which these low characters attempt to create couplets and make rhymes. I can tell you that they have a lot of difficulty finding something that goes with ‘animal!’

You’ve explored all sorts of aspects to your creative energies in your various stage projects… and maybe in that alternate universe you might have focused on one specific skill out of everything in your artistic toolbox, like your very strong singing voice. According to your bio, every now and then you’ll perform as an actor or singer in someone else’s work, like in My Lai, the Kronos Quartet production based on the infamous massacre from the Vietnam War. And there’s also mention of your being a member of a “prog rock supergroup” called Big Farm…

Kronos and I loved doing My Lai, and we hope to get another chance to perform it sometime soon. I co-directed and co-designed the production. I always try to get my hand in somewhere… and the whole thing was very tastefully done. I still get a chance to do avant garde opera every now and then, and as for Big Farm, well, we really only perform once a year. But I have to say we’re very famous, among certain people!

Back to Pericles, would you say that your collaboration with Mr. Schweizer and with Two River is an attempt to have the world look with fresh eyes at this work that’s been more or less footnoted, asterisked, thought of as a bastard cousin to Shakespeare’s more celebrated creations? Are Pericles the character, and Pericles the play, finally ready for their close-up?

I look at it as a reclamation project, for the most part. We’re doing this amazing piece of work with just seven actors, when normally you’d need 14 or 15. But it’s in the spirit of Shakespeare the practical thinker, as well as Shakespeare the poet. I understand why he did this play… and why I’m doing it.

Pericles goes up in previews on April 16, opens officially on Friday, April 22, and runs through May 8 with a mix of matinee and evening performances, with tickets ($20 – $65 adults) and details on special performances obtainable here. Post-play conversations with cast members and Two River’s artistic staff will take place following the performances on April 27 (7 p.m.), May 1 (3 p.m.) and May 4 (1 p.m.).

As part of its Inside Two River series of free arts and humanities programs, TRTC literary manager Anika Chapin leads a Book Club session on Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, as a discussion of “literary journeys and how far you have to go to discover who you really are.” The discussion takes place in the theater’s upstairs Victoria Mastrobuono Library on Sunday, April 24, at 5:30 p.m. (following that day’s 3 p.m. performance).

The Mastrobuono Library is also the setting for a special lecture on Thursday, April 28, when guest speaker Sue Starke, Associate Professor of English at Monmouth University, discusses “Adventure and Growth in Shakespeare’s ‘Pericles’” as part of the Conversation + Play salon series curated by the Navesink (producers of the TEDxNavesink conference) and Two River Theater. Tickets for this event are $50 and include the salon (exclusive pre-show event with talk, food, and drink) and the 8 p.m. performance. To purchase tickets, go here and use the promo code NAVESINK50.