Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Goddess from the Machine in Berkeley Rep's "Pericles"

Readers of this blog probably know what the term "deus ex machina" means and where it comes from. But just in case you don't... it literally means "the god from the machine," and it refers to the practice, in ancient Greek and Roman theater, of lowering an actor dressed up like a god onto the stage using a giant crane, and having the god or goddess character resolve the plot just when everything seemed hopeless. Nowadays, of course, we use the term in a looser sense, for any contrivance that comes in at the end of a story to wrap up the plot in an arbitrary way. (I also have a long-standing fascination with the term because my first play was titled Deus ex Machina.)

We've all seen plays and stories that employ a deus ex machina in the second, looser sense -- but I never expected that I would ever see a real "god from the machine" being hoisted onstage via a crane.

And then I saw Pericles at Berkeley Rep last Sunday. As Pericles is not one of Shakespeare's strongest or most psychologically intriguing works, Mark Wing-Davey's production gains its interest from its lively staging, performed by an ensemble of eight actors. There are masks, there are puppets, there's a platform on springs that doubles as a bed (for a sex scene) and the deck of a ship (for a storm scene)... and there's a giant crane that swings round at various moments to pluck something offstage or lower something on.

The script of Pericles incorporates a shameless deus ex machina: the goddess Diana appears to Pericles in a dream and tells him where he can find his long-lost wife. And, as I said, the crane got quite a workout during the production: most memorably, in the scene where Marina is suddenly kidnapped by smugglers, the actress got trapped in a big net and then hoisted into mid-air.

So I really should've seen it coming, that this production would employ the crane one final time, for the deus ex machina scene at the end of the play. Nonetheless, I was amazed and delighted when Diana swung into view, dangling from the end of the crane and giving her wisdom to Pericles.

My boyfriend, even though he is a classics scholar, professed to be disappointed by the effect. He said it looked very inelegant, to have the goddess dangling from the crane like a sack of potatoes.

"But that's the way it would've looked in ancient Greece," I said. "Though they wouldn't have said 'sack of potatoes' because potatoes are a New World food..."

Perhaps audiences these days are accustomed to more elaborate, smoother flying effects, using the latest technology. But I was thrilled to see a bit of ancient theater history repurposed for a 21st-century production.

Pericles plays at Berkeley Rep through May 26.

Photo: Jessica Kitchens as Thaisa, David Barlow as Pericles, Anita Carey as Gower. (There are no pictures available online of Diana on the crane, so I selected this photo instead -- because Ms. Kitchens also plays Diana, and isn't her Thaisa costume gorgeous?) Photo courtesy of

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