In the opening lines of Shakespeare’s chaotic “Pericles,” before the play and its prince go chasing off on a series of adventures, there is a phrase so genteelly creepy that 400 years haven’t diminished its power to make an audience’s skin crawl.
We are told of a widowed king’s beautiful daughter, “with whom the father liking took and her to incest did provoke.” Or, as one narrator rephrases it for contemporary clarity in Target Margin Theater’s slenderized, slice-and-dice remix of the play: “The dude sleeps with his daughter.”
That’s not a secret that the predatory king wants anyone to know, and when Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, figures it out by solving a riddle, he has to flee for his life. But the king’s lurid scandal, which takes up much of the play’s first act, has nothing to do with what follows.
It’s just the catalyst that sends the hero on his way, into further chapters of his life. Pericles (Eunice Wong) marries, seemingly loses his wife (Mary Neufeld) to childbirth, then seemingly loses their daughter (Susannah Wilson), too, before assorted joyous and even goddess-aided reunions restore his happiness. A stale jumble of a play, it’s not exactly Shakespeare’s best work, and many scholars believe he shares authorship with the dramatist George Wilkins.
Target Margin, which credits the text of its version to “Shakespeare and others,” has added yet more authors to the mix for David Herskovits’s staging at the Doxsee Theater in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Colloquial, 21st-century verbiage written by the ensemble, the designers and the production team is interspersed among the Jacobean lines — most heavily at the top of the show, as the actors try to ease us into the bizarro plot.
Except that they also jar us from it, as when the announcement about turning off cellphones is tucked awkwardly amid the dialogue after the performance has begun. In Act II, when a fisherman asks Pericles if he knows where he is, another character answers for him: “We’re in Brooklyn,” which is funny until the show steps on its own levity with the rest of the line, “originally known as Lenapehoking.” Then comes the land acknowledgment.
Herskovits, Target Margin’s artistic director, has a long track record of intrepid theatrical investigation, which has often resulted in surprising illumination. This “Pericles,” unfortunately, is an experiment that does not work. It is not clear enough in execution to suggest what it was aiming for.
The cast is stocked with talent, and Dina El-Aziz’s costumes are lively and fun: motley and iridescent in Act I, largely black and white by Act V. But the storytelling has a miscalculated remoteness that leaves us with little to hang onto and no reason to feel — though Wong, in the title role, almost wrings emotion from the ending.
Herskovits and his company are seeking meaning in a text that has survived this long not on merit, but because it bears Shakespeare’s name. Intact, the play is wildly overloaded. But this scooped-out variation feels like a dried husk that’s somehow just as messy as if it still had its entrails.
Through March 26 at Target Margin Theater, Brooklyn; targetmargin.org. Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes.