Ferocious, Compelling ‘Coriolanus’ Emerges at Brave Spirits Theatre

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“Destroy’d his country, and his name remains to the ensuing age abhorr’d.” Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, as directed by Charlene V. Smith, takes the audience at Brave Spirits Theatre through the frenzied proceedings of the rise and fall of once-famed general Caius Martius. Martius returns to Rome victorious after many battles and is given the name Coriolanus. Coriolanus, unable to twist his personality into a bureaucratic mold that pleases the populace, is subsequently cast out of Rome. In his shame and exile, he seeks out a former enemy to exact revenge on the heart of the Roman state.

Renea S. Brown as Virgilia and John Stange as Coriolanus. Photo by Claire Kimball.
Renea S. Brown as Virgilia and John Stange as Coriolanus. Photo by Claire Kimball.

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant and underrated plays. Juxtaposing the will of the people against the will of the government against the will of the individual, it has been interpreted in numerous ways over the years, at one point even being used by both Bertolt Brecht and the Third Reich to portray opposing sentiments. Director Charlene V. Smith has teased out a coherent, transcendent narrative which does not provide any easy answers, yet feels complete and profound.

Brave Spirits shows no lack of creativity in using the space in which they perform. In fact, the show begins in the lobby, with actors milling through the audience— even addressing them directly. You are then led to a corridor where another scene is set, then finally to the cavernous space where the bulk of the action takes place in an immersive, in-the-round setting.

Fight Director Casey Kaleba is a genius, using every corner of the seemingly-underwhelming, industrial performance space to put the audience in the middle of intense battles. There are times when this Coriolanus treads on your psyche, invading your conscience and causing a slight panic to well up as the actors scream ferally and bang sticks against the floor, weaving in and out of the audience. This dynamic use of movement sets this production apart.

John Stange is a convincing Coriolanus. He plays it straight, never in a way that is overblown or unrealistic. Jessica Lefkow, as Volumnia, is regal and composed, yet scheming and imposing in a way that highlights her somewhat sinister role in the proceedings. These performances give this play a hard edge, yet it retains balance due to Renea S. Brown’s Virgilia. Her portrayal is soft where it is necessary, gentle in ways that make her role as Coriolanus’s wife believable, and genuinely enjoyable. Ian Blackwell Rogers gives us a biting turn as Menenius Agrippa, a Roman senator. Rodgers wears a clever humor like a second skin and the audience greatly benefits from this excellent casting.

Each member of the ensemble plays multiple roles. They are, of course, all top-notch talent. However, the performance which was most fascinating was that of Robert Pike as Tullus Aufidius, a disgraced Volscian general. Pike has a raw, unapologetic masculine power that saturates the space he inhabits. He beats his chest, snarls animalistically, shakes when he delivers his lines with a barely-constrained fury. When he delivers the closing line of the play— which was plucked perfectly from the text— I wasn’t sure whether I found his character repulsive or whether I deeply identified with his explosion of rage which had gone so long repressed. Performances which hold a mirror up to ourselves in such a palpable way are a rare treasure. I wasn’t the only one who felt they left having been given the gift of seeing Robert Pike bring this character to life.

Robert Pike as Aufidius. Photo by Claire Kimball.
Robert Pike as Aufidius. Photo by Claire Kimball.

 

Coriolanus speaks to many themes that resonate with modern audiences. There is the constant pull between a public and private face: Those who can’t apply each where they are needed are doomed to fail. Likewise, there is a gap between truth and what the masses convince themselves is true. Believing in a thing doesn’t make it real, and bureaucrats will likely continue to manipulate and rile up a dissatisfied populace in support of their own ends. Coriolanus is brought to life with a passion and vitality that that holds you captive. Brave Spirits Theatre has created a sharp, ferocious show which places the audience in the center of the action and transports them to the darkest corners of the human psyche— in a thoroughly enjoyable way. Don’t miss this one. We have a lot of fantastic Shakespeare theater in this area, but Brave Spirits more than holds their own— Coriolanus exceeds expectations and successfully pushes the boundaries in every way.

Running Time: Two Hours and 30 minutes, including one 10-minute intermission.

Coriolanus plays through February 25, 2018 at The Lab at Convergence— 1819 N. Quaker Lane in Alexandria, VA. Tickets can be purchased online.