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James Andreassi, Founder & Artistic Director of Elm Shakespeare Company

James Andreassi spent much of May driving his power boat from Fort Pierce, Florida, up the coast to the Connecticut shoreline. When we caught up with Andreassi, he and his wife, Margie, along with two dogs and a cat, were located on Bald Head Island, on North Carolina’s Cape Fear River.

For Andreassi, the Elm Shakespeare Company’s artistic director, it was a chance to spend time on the water and immersed in the Bard’s work – particularly the play he’ll direct in Edgerton Park in August.

This year’s offering, Pericles, will be staged August 14 through August 31. In May, at what he called Elm Shakespeare Company’s “nautical office,” Andreassi was arriving at a vision for his turn at a play that he described as an “epic sea voyage.”

Having staged Macbeth two years ago and Julius Caesar last summer, Andreassi said, “I certainly didn’t want to do another big tragedy.” Nor was he interested in dedicating a year to planning and studying one of Shakespeare’s “low comedies.”

“I was looking to work on something a little more substantive,” he explained.

He chose Pericles, Prince of Tyre because it fit that requirement and was a work with which he was completely unfamiliar. “I began reading it with a complete misconception,” he said.

That the title character is not the same Pericles who’s credited with being the father of Athenian if not modern democracy was an attraction. “That ambiguity, that confusion, I love,” Andreassi said.

There’s also the intrigue that comes with the fact that an otherwise largely unknown writer named George Wilkins is believed by many to have contributed to the play, which is a riff on John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, itself a version of the ancient Greek story Apollonius of Tyre.

“In Shakespeare’s life,” Andreassi said, citing Harold Bloom, a literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, “it was his most popular play.”

As he began thinking about how he wanted to present Pericles, Andreassi found himself thinking of actor and Trinidad and Tobago native Paul Pryce, who played Mark Antony in last summer’s production of Julius Caesar. And while he wasn’t about to rename the play Pericles, Prince of Trinidad, that’s exactly how Andreassi began reimagining the story.

On the water en route to the Connecticut shoreline from Florida, Andreassi thought about one of his favorite historical figures, Toussaint Louverture, who led the Haitian Revolution at the turn of the 19th century.

Pericles, in Andreassi’s mind, became a black Caribbean prince living in a mid-18th century world that’s extremely dangerous for him – a time period less than half a century before the cultural upheavals that led to the American, French, and Haitian revolutions.

While no revolution takes place in his turn at Pericles, Andreassi said he wants the production to convey a sense that there’s a political powder keg that could be set off at any moment.

“I think it’s my job … to find an interesting take on the play,” he said. “I have license, I think, to try to tell the story as theatrically, as entertainingly, as arrestingly as I can.”

Andreassi said that “every director is invited – particularly with plays written by Shakespeare – to invent their own landscape.”

The genius of Shakespeare’s plays, he said, is that “they’re incredibly flexible.”

“What you bring to them,” he said, “they’ll offer you back more in exchange.”

Article by David Brensilver. This story appears in the July/August issue of The Arts Paper. Download or read the rest of the issue here. To listen to James Andreassi, Paul Pryce and a few others from the Elm Shakespeare group talk about Pericles check out our ON AIR section to stream the latest episode of our WPKN arts talk show.

Elm Shakespeare Company presents Pericles in Edgerton Park, 75 Cliff St., August 14-17, August 19-24, and August 26-31. Performances begin at 8 p.m. and admission is free. Visit elmshakespeare.org for more information

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