by John Bavoso
This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.
In fraught times, where do you go to find hope? Assuming the answer is not “within yourself,” might I suggest the basement of a church where, seated in a circle with a group of strangers, you recount personal stories and cherished memories? If it sounds like I’m pointing you in the direction of a support group, well, I am, sort of—in the form of Hannah Hessel Ratner’s In This Hope: A Pericles Project, being produced now by The Welders at Spooky Action Theater.
Using Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre as a starting point, an ensemble of four actors tell the tale of not only the Greek hero, but also their own personal and family histories, and coax the audience to do the same. In doing so, they transform the classic tale into something more modern and personal, updating some (generally the sexist) parts and finding relevance in contemporary life in the process. And in doing so, the cast of In This Hope stitches together an evening filled with memory, storytelling, and community.
Upon entering the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street, audience members are led downstairs and through the kitchen to a big, open space filled with a circle of wooden chairs. On the walls surrounding this circle is a map of the ancient world with the cities of Tyre and Antioch and the like marked off. Above the space hangs several ropes or cords crisscrossed, like a tapestry waiting to be woven.
Our guides and our bridge between the ancient source text, the Jacobian retelling, and the present interpretation are four talented and versatile actors— Lida Maria Benson, Rocelyn Frisco, Raghad Makhlouf, and Lori Pitts. Under Anna Brenner’s deft direction and using little more than a few infinity scarves and a crown made of forks, these four assume a variety of roles from Pericles, but also play themselves, sharing bits of memory and personal anecdotes from the Ukraine (Benson), the Phillipines (Frisco), Lebanon (Makhlouf), and here in DC (Pitts).
In This Hope is billed as a ritual as well as a performance, and the audience is encouraged to not only participate, but help to create the piece from the ground up—this play literally could not exist on a proscenium behind a fourth wall. Given that Hessel Ratner’s primary vocation is that of a dramaturg rather than a playwright, it’s no surprise that deep excavation and group work are main features of the piece. From sharing a memory with a neighbor to inviting an audience member to play a role in the original tale, but with a choose-your-own-adventure twist, the audience is welcomed in and made to feel a part of the story in a genuine, non-threatening way.
The interwoven nature of the past and present, of myth and memory, is interesting and thought-provoking, but at times can lead to a somewhat muddled experience. For example, the death of Pericles’ wife, Thaisa, as she gives birth to the couple’s daughter, Marina, is used as a touchpoint for discussing how the maternal mortality rate in DC is more than twice the national average, especially among African American women.
While this aligns with the idea of blending the past and present, and literature and reality, it doesn’t seem to fit as neatly with either the world of the Pericles story or the personal lives of the actors—it’s important information, but it feels slightly out of place. Similarly, there are other moments when the drama of Pericles or the stories of the actors or the memories of the audience is reaching its height, only to be cut off by another narrative. When the intermingling of these different threads works seamlessly, it casts a spell; when it doesn’t, it can be jarring for the audience.
“What world is this?” This line, written by William Shakespeare and repeated several times by In This Hope’s cast, is not one that is easily or happily answered by many people these days. But the team behind In This Hope: A Pericles Project is creating its own world from scratch, in which strangers are vulnerable and open and stories are shared without judgement—and that’s a space I wouldn’t mind inhabiting for more than 2 hours at a time.
In This Hope: A Pericles Project by Hannah Hessel Ratner. Directed by Anna Brenner. Associate Director Jess Phillips . Featuring Lida Maria Benson, Rocelyn Frisco, Raghad Makhlouf, and Lori Pitts. Environmental designer: Colin K. Bills. Costume designer: Pei Lee. Sound designer: Roc Lee. Design assistant: Cody Whitfield. Artistic consultant: Isaiah Matthew Wooden. Stage manager: Emma Heck. Assistant stage manager: JJ Hersh. Production manager: KayCee Tucker. Produced by The Welders.