Coriolanus has a reputation for being one of Shakespeare’s least accessible plays. Its title character, a Roman warrior turned reluctant politician, can be hard to get a bead on – and hard to root for. The play starts with ferocious battles, but soon devolves into arcane political discussions. And its characters’ allegiances shift so quickly that the plot can be hard to follow.
How nice, then, it is to see that director Kittson O’Neill has fashioned a Coriolanus that brings clarity to what can be a rather obtuse play. O’Neill’s production, this summer’s offering at Shakespeare in Clark Park, maintains a measured pace that sustains its vitality even after the violence of its early scenes has subsided.
This Coriolanus features an all-female primary cast – yet aside from a few changed pronouns, the play does not suffer. The cast displays steady power, with no weak links. There’s also a 45-member Community Chorus (both male and female) playing the two competing armies, the Romans and their rivals the Volscians, as well as the crowds of plebeians that challenge Coriolanus’ rule. Having an ensemble this large adds authenticity to the drama and gives this low-budget production a touch of grandeur. (Carly Bodnar is the Community Chorus Director.)
Unlike Hamlet, Macbeth and Henry V, Coriolanus never gets to declaim epic soliloquies that reveal his (or, in this case, her) inner thoughts. That makes her a less powerful character than those other protagonists, and it’s one of the reasons for the play’s obscurity. It’s also a reason why Charlotte Northeast, playing the title role here, deserves praise for a nuanced performance that gives the audience insight into Coriolanus’ state of mind. She’s suitably aggressive early on, then shows palpable frustration and discomfort as she is forced into public life. When the people of Rome turn on her, banishing her for her supposed misdeeds, she turns contemplative as she journeys to make peace with her old enemies the Volscians. Northeast’s sensitive performance makes this inconsistent character consistently intriguing.
Opening night of Shakespeare in Clark Park had, as might be expected on such a huge undertaking, a few technical flubs; amplification was erratic, leading to some silent passages. And the sounds of West Philadelphia intruded from time to time, with everything from passing cars to an overhead helicopter making themselves heard. (One battle scene inadvertently had a score provided by the nearby Mister Softee truck.)
But the supporting cast contains several standouts, each of whom showed excellent diction that cut through the sometimes murky sound mix. Kimberly Fairbanks brings a regal bearing to the role of Menenius, a “humorous patrician” of the Roman Senate, while Hannah Gold brings an assertive edge to Brutus, a senator who challenges Coriolanus at every turn. Iman Aaliyah is engaging as the Roman general Titus Lartius, and Emily Kaye Lynn brings a prickly edge to the enemy general Aufidius. And Judith Lightfoot Clarke plays Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia with a fractured, tragic nobility.
Jacqueline Holloway’s fight choreography enlivens the battle scenes, while Natalia de la Torre’s costumes are dominated by brown-and-tan tunics that give the scenes a tribal ambiance. The unfinished wood platforms of D’Vaugh Agu’s sets add to that quality. And Drew Billiau’s lighting handles the transition from light to dusk to darkness well; torches appear in characters’ hands just when they’re needed.
There was a revealing moment on opening night that showed just how much this smart, stimulating production of Coriolanus is connecting with its audience. It came near the end of the play, when the citizens of Rome approach the senators to declare that even though they took part in protests led to Coriolanus being banished from Rome, they never really wanted her to be exiled. “Though we willingly consented to her banishment,” one of the citizens declares, “yet it was against our will.”
A man sitting on the lawn near me shouted, “Liar!” Laughter rolled through the crowd.
Coriolanus may not be Shakespeare’s most audience-friendly play, but any production that can get the 21st Century theatergoers of West Philly – the modern-day equivalent of Shakespeare’s groundlings – to react like that is doing its job well.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with no intermission.
Coriolanus plays through Sunday, July 30, 2017 at Clark Park, 43rd Street and Chester Avenue, in Philadelphia, PA. Tickets are free, but a donation is encouraged. For further information, visit their website.