Shakespeare in Clark Park returns as a circus

Jo Vito Ramírez as Young Pericles (left) and Brittany Onukwugha as Young Thaisa (right)

Jo Vito Ramírez as Young Pericles (left) and Brittany Onukwugha as Young Thaisa (right) in Shakespeare in Clark Park’s production of "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," a romance. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

When audiences come to Clark Park this week to see the free, outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” they will find three sections of staging outfitted with aerial acrobatic equipment: silks and lyra hoops.

If they thought they were walking into a three-ring circus, they would not be far off.

“In the story, there are three important kingdoms that Prince Pericles travels to outside of his own kingdom,” Kittson O’Neill, artistic director of Shakespeare in Clark Park, explaining the triptych staging. “But, really, it is a nod to the three-ring circus.”

Kaitlin Chin performs aerials in a Shakespeare in Clark Park production
Kaitlin Chin is a performer and the circus director of “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” a Shakespeare in Clark Park performance. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The cast of the play do their own circus acts, including clowning, juggling, tumbling, and aerial work. Sometime the routines are subtle, such as during a scene when the king of Antioch admits to an incestuous relationship, his daughter twirls in silks in the background behind him. Sometimes the routines are right up front at center stage, as in a scene where suitors compete against one another for the hand of another king’s daughter.

Shakespeare in Clark Park brought in two directors: Carly Bodnar directed the play and Kaitlin Chin directed the circus elements. They designed the acrobatics to support the story of Pericles’ Odyssey-like journey encountering adventures as he sails from kingdom to foreign kingdom, rather than upstage it.

“There’s a visceral experience the audience gets from watching somebody do something that is useful and dangerous and a little stupid — or seems that way,” said Chin. “They fear for them. They connect to them on a much deeper level, as opposed to, ‘I’m acting and I’m going to tell you about how I was just in a shipwreck.’ Why would we tell you about being in a shipwreck when we could show you?”

This production of Pericles had been planned for last summer, before the coronavirus pandemic forced its closure. Originally, the performance was to have involved many more people, as Shakespeare in Clark Park was recruiting dozens of volunteer extras from martial arts classes, yoga studios, circus amateurs, ballroom dancers, and anyone comfortable doing choreographed movement.

Jo Vito Ramírez as Young Pericles in Shakespeare in Clark Park’s production of "Pericles, Prince of Tyre."
Jo Vito Ramírez as Young Pericles in Shakespeare in Clark Park’s production of “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.” (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The original idea was to use their collective bodies to create moving stage effects, for example forming the shape of a ship sailing through waves, or the erection of a building. It was to be part of Shakespeare in Clark Park’s mission of “radical community engagement,” incorporating neighborhood residents, en masse, into the production.

The pandemic squashed that idea last year. Several months ago, when O’Neill returned to Pericles for this summer, she proceeded with caution.

Circus arts are worked into Shakespeare in Clark Park’s production of "Pericles, Prince of Tyre."
Circus arts are worked into Shakespeare in Clark Park’s production of “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.” (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“When we were deciding to remount the show, we really didn’t know what the state of the pandemic would be, how accessible vaccinations were going to be,” she said. “We really couldn’t predict whether we would be able to involve community members in the show successfully, or if we would have to start and stop. We had already had a few interactions with people and then had to be, like, ‘Never mind!’ We really didn’t want to do that again.”

The production has not given up entirely on involving the community: A few moments of Pericles involve direct audience engagement. Several trained people will be planted in the audience to act as instigators, showing the audience when to use items like paper birthday hats during a party scene, as well as blue fabric and a light source, “like the Rocky Horror Picture Show,” said O’Neill.

This year, Shakespeare in Clark Park is experimenting with creating additional productions in parks in Kensington and Germantown. Those communities will devise and produce plays loosely based on Pericles, telling their own stories.

Residents and community groups in those neighborhoods got together with Shakespeare in Clark Park playwrights Alexandra Espinoza (Kensington) and Ang Bey (Germantown), to use Pericles as the starting point to tell their stories. The original play “Peril’s Island” will be performed by residents of Kensington at Harrowgate Park from Aug. 13 through Aug. 15.

The community in Germantown decided to make their version of Pericles more of a fair in Vernon Park, with booths and tents highlighting neighborhood businesses and organizations, arranged as kingdoms seen in Pericles. A performance will end the fair each evening, Aug. 28 and 29.

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