As we looked with excitement at the plays our Shakespeare theater partners across the country were staging this summer, we noticed something: an unusual number of Shakespeare’s late romances. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company just closed its production of Pericles in Ellicott City, MD, while the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival and Utah Shakespeare Festival’s productions of that play continue into September. Cymbeline is onstage now at both the Utah Shakespeare Festival and the American Players Theatre. If you missed the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s staging of The Tempest in Boston earlier this summer, you can still catch the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production in Garrison, NY.
Shakespeare wrote the romances—a set of plays that includes Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen—roughly between 1607 and 1614. Shakespeare’s colleagues didn’t call these plays “romances” when they compiled the First Folio: Cymbeline is listed as a tragedy, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are comedies, and Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen don’t appear at all. In the late 1800s, the critic Edward Dowden noted their similarities and grouped them together into a genre: the “romances.” The term stuck. The romances often feature epic stories, which sometimes take place over long periods of time. They show the influence of the court masques, which was becoming increasingly popular in Jacobean England, and were written with the indoor theater in mind. Perhaps most important, the romances frequently feature incredible reunions.
What inspired this summer’s productions, and what can these plays tell us about the summer of 2021? We asked some of the people who worked on them.
Episodes, technology, and hugs from the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival
“Pericles is pretty episodic,” San Francisco Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Rebecca J. Ennals said in June on the Folger’s Shakespeare Lightning Round. “It probably takes place over about 20 years. Pericles goes from location to location to location.” Accordingly, the Festival is taking an episodic approach to the play, which they are performing in four parts. The first three episodes, staged online over the past two months, used the Festival’s Unified Virtual Space system. Devised for last year’s King Lear by technical director Neal Ormond, this system stitches together live video feeds from actors performing in their separate homes into a single virtual world.
The Festival hopes to return to parks around the Bay Area in September with the fourth and final episode. “It’s most of Act 4 and all of Act 5: the reunions, all of the family getting back together,” says Ennals.
“I love this idea that Carla [Pantoja, the production’s Director of Vision,] has, that no one will have touched up until that point, we won’t have seen anybody touch anybody else, it’ll all be very distanced, and that at the end, we get all the hugs. I cry just thinking about it. How long has it been since we watched two actors touch each other on a stage, physically be together, and hug?”
Goofy action at a distance at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
On the other side of the country, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and director Matthew R. Wilson had similar ideas: their production of Pericles, performed outdoors at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City, MD, closed August 1. With pandemic-related restrictions on audience size hanging over them, the company took the opportunity to produce one of Shakespeare’s deep cuts and landed on Pericles, which Wilson describes as “a play about perseverance and getting back what was lost.” Pericles was also the first Shakespeare play to be revived in Restoration-era England after eighteen years without theater. “It has a history of being ‘the reopening play,’” says Wilson.
Distance was a big part of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s bouncy July production, staged atop a playground/pirate ship complete with a slide, trampoline, and ball pit. The performance was almost entirely socially-distanced: actors performed at least six feet apart from one another at all times, using ingenious methods to pass off props (bouncing them, sliding them, or dropping them from above) or engage in combat (summertime’s six-foot-long weapon-of-choice: pool noodles). It was only at the end, when the central family is reunited, that the actors playing Pericles, Thaisa, Marina embraced at last.
The production sought fun, surprise, and adventure in a script that sometimes makes its director cringe. “There’s a lot of misogyny and racist, ethnic otherizing,” says Wilson, “It’s a colonial mindset that gives us this story: ‘Here’s the valiant, virtuous man who’s like us, and he goes to the strange places where bad people do strange things.’” How do theater artists hang onto the play’s fun, globe-trotting elements without mindlessly reproducing its exoticism and other retraumatizing content? With a lean, judicious cut of the text and a focus on fantasy. “Our goal was to lean into adventure and play,” says Wilson, “We’re going to go to unexpected places and do unexpected things, like a kid’s going to do on a playground.”
Reflecting on the romances, Wilson notes that in some ways, they “redeem” the events of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
“If King Lear is the story of a father who cuts himself off from his daughters, then Pericles is the story of a father who gets his daughter back. Or, The Tempest: the two brothers are reunited, society is reunited. For me, this summer, I didn’t want to see King Lear. I don’t really want to end on that note. But the idea of pushing through, persevering, and reclaiming what was lost, what was taken—by our own stupidity, bad actions, or the forces of chance around us… Pericles says at the end, “O you Gods, your present kindness makes my past miseries sports.” It’s holding out for the thing you never could have expected was coming, and then, against all odds, you get it. That’s the story I want right now.”
Forgiveness and mercy in New York and Wisconsin
Forgiveness is another big theme of Shakespeare’s late romances. In 1876, Dowden surmised that “Shakespeare still thought of the graver trials and tests which life applies to human character, of the wrongs which man inflicts upon man.”
“But his present temper demanded not a tragic issue—it rather demanded an issue into joy or peace. The dissonance must be resolved into a harmony, clear and rapturous, or solemn and profound… at the end there is a resolution of the dissonance or a reconciliation. This is the word which interprets Shakespeare’s latest plays—reconciliation, ‘word over all, beautiful as the sky.’”
“Ultimately, it’s a play about forgiveness and mercy,” American Players Theatre Artistic Director Brenda DeVita says of Cymbeline, which the company will stage this month with an all-female cast directed by Marti Lyons.
“Who deserves it? Is anything truly unforgiveable? How do you hold people accountable for their misdeeds, whether they’re trivial or dangerous? How do we take care of ourselves and others when we have been wronged? Those are questions that we, as a society, are asking every day. It could not feel more timely.”
The story feels also like a fairy tale, DeVita says—wicked stepmothers, spoiled princes, and a tricky, motiveless villain—so performing it with a cast of women upends the tropes we’ve seen a hundred times and allows us to examine them through a female lens.
Forgiveness was also much on the mind of Davis McCallum as he thought about staging The Tempest at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. The choice had to do with “the moment we’ve all been living in and through,” he says:
“A moment of turbulence, loss, and social isolation, as well as a long-overdue moment of reckoning around urgent questions of social justice and accountability. The final words of the play are all about a prayer for mutual liberation and grace, which seemed to resonate in a powerful way today—’As you from crimes would pardon’d be/ Let your indulgence set me free.’”
The Tempest will also be the Festival’s final production at the Boscobel House and Gardens, its home for the past thirty-four years. Next year, HVSF will begin the move to a breathtaking new permanent home in Philipstown, NY. “I thought this play would be a great way to honor all the ‘rough magic’ that’s been created and shared in this spot over so many summer evenings,” says McCallum, “There’s a valedictory note to it, and also a sense of celebration—an all-encompassing, pull-out-all-the-stops last hurrah.”
Watch these productions
Looking to add a little romance to your summer?
See Cymbeline at the American Players Theatre through September 11. Can’t make it to Spring Green, WI? Take advantage of their APT At Home streaming films to watch the show from home beginning August 22!
See The Tempest at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison, NY through September 4.
Catch episode four of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s Pericles in Bay Area parks beginning September 4. Watch recordings of the first three episodes by signing up for the Festival’s Zoom watch parties on August 14, 21, and 28.
American Players Theatre, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, and Utah Shakespeare Festival are members of the Folger’s Theater Partnership Program.