CORIOLANUS (Lantern): Succeeding with a Shakespeare many companies wouldn’t attempt

Lantern Theater Company Coriolanus review

Chris Anthony as Titus Lartius and Robert Lyons as Coriolanus in Lantern Theater Company’s production of CORIOLANUS by William Shakespeare, onstage now through April 16, 2017. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The Ides of March. Lantern Theater Company’s production opened on an excellent date for celebrating dead Romans. It takes a brave company with chops to take on this difficult and historically unpopular work and turn it out with a sense of style.

The acting space conveys mood more than any particular timeframe. Uncluttered except for a few tall columns and large items stored near a warehouse door, it looks at once current, bleak, and archaic. Seen through a gathering mist, some kind of civic disturbance is going on. Hungry citizens of Rome have gathered before the city’s grain warehouse with loudspeakers and signs. The mist and noise lend the sense of a larger crowd. TV press shows up and their protest is on the screen, live, with a breaking news banner running across the bottom.

A ferocious mother has raised a son of splendid military prowess. His name is Caius Marcus. He will soon be called Coriolanus, by Roman custom, in honor of his defeat of the Volscian town of Corioli.  For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to him as Coriolanus before he is so titled.

The air is thick and fuzzy, the lighting, strategic and cinematic. The action has segued from Rome to Corioli, where lighted gun sights can be seen through the haze, and the loud chatter of automatic weapons is heard along with drums and clangs. Coriolanus is served up strong and fervent by Robert Lyons, credible as a lean and mean warrior. He and his nemesis, a fit and scary Charlie DelMarcelle as badass Aufidius, are discovered in a knife fight, mano-a mano. These men have more in common with each other than they have with their own cities. Their mutual admiration is notable. And there may be just the barest suggestion of something simmering underneath. Coriolanus wins the fight and defeats the city of Corioli.

Lantern Theater Company Coriolanus

Tina Packer as Volumnia and Mary Lee Bednarek as Virgilia. Photo by Mark Garvin.

In Rome, a new republic of patricians and plebeians with class troubles, an election is held for a new consul. Coriolanus, proposed for the position, doesn’t care for the crowd’s adulation. He refuses to follow a simple and customary tradition of showing the people the scars that earned his chance for consul. He shrinks from having to ask for votes. He doesn’t know what to say and his mother advises him to temporize. That’s so not him.

Shakespeare supplies intelligent leadership for a strange kind of civil mob that gathers. These people have insights and a willingness to listen. Menenius, a patrician cheerfully played by Brian McCann, sees himself as the humorous “herdman of the beastly plebeians.”  What he can’t see is that he’s part of their troubles. He explains how the civic body works: Roman senators are the good belly that gets sustenance, and the people are the body’s extremities. Some nourishment works its way to them: Olde tyme trickle-down economics.

The people’s tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, rile up the crowd to bring Coriolanus down. For basically foolish villains, they’re good plotters and they offer moments of comic relief. On the page they’re interchangeable, like Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz. On stage they’re well delineated by David Bardeem and Leonard C. Haas.  In one of his best slurs Coriolanus calls Sicinius “the Triton of the Minnows.” The cast is truly a joy. Kirk Wendell Brown as Cominus, a loyal general and consul, is one of the good guys along with Chris Anthony’s Titus Lartius. The actors, except for leads Lyons and Packer, are all ensemble players who doff identities and pop on new ones instantaneously.

Three V women: Volumia, Virgilia, and Valeria have a chat. Volumia, Coriolanus’s formidable mother, has made Coriolanus what he is. She’s absolutely embodied by fierce Tina Packer, as if the part had been written centuries ago just for this guest star. Virgilia, Caius’s lovely wife (Mary Lee Bednarek) is dominated by her mother-in-law. Hannah Van Sciver’s Valeria, a friend to Virgilia, charmingly describes a telling little incident in which Volumia’s young grandson, having chased and played with a butterfly, rips its wings with his teeth. Volumia is clearly delighted to hear it. She indoctrinated the boy’s father from the cradle, killing off childish gentleness, instilling her purpose. Volumia lives vicariously through her son, a Peter Pan of a fierce warrior who hasn’t grown up. She basks in the glory of his many injuries.

Although he has his fair share of speeches, Coriolanus doesn’t soliloquize, a la Hamlet. In fact, he often seems bottled up, as if speech can’t explain his inner struggles, as if something liminal is going on in his psyche.  He has a kind of modesty, left over from his ruined nature. He says that his mother’s praises grieve him. Nature vs nurture. His mother’s nurturing emotionally crippled him. He never had a chance.

Janus Stefanowicz’s colorful flowing women’s costumes feature non-time-sensitive design. Men’s attire includes some traditional jackets, but populace costumes are drab and rough. The aggressive leather and boots of combatants speak not so much of ‘soldier’ as of modern gang couture. And then there are the knives and the automatic weapons, just like the kids in camo carry, patrolling NY Penn Station in real life.

Audiences bring their own reasoning and experience to a play, and can tend to receive it in the context of their own concerns The situation in CORIOLANUS has prevailed through time, with antecedents like Antigone, where city people look to limit the power of aristocrats. Through ancient Rome, and Shakespeare’s day, and forward through time there are class struggles: the bourgeoisie and the poor, the Fascists and the masses, the have and have nots, all around the globe, right up until here and now. While some have drawn parallels between Mr. Trump and Coriolanus, that would be a bit off. Coriolanus was a patrician soldier, neither a ruler nor a tyrant. Whether Trump is a tyrant remains to be seen. But it’s the actions of a divided people that call up similarities to CORIOLANUS. Today many are impassioned, determined, and taking to the streets.

This Shakespeare play has not been a sure bet for a theater’s season. Its inner workings don’t always follow through. Characters can have unexplained changes. There are gaps where needed plot pieces were dropped or never written. And as a post-classic Shakespearean tragedy there’s no compensatory romanticism. But under Charles McMahon’s direction there’s good reason to go see the play. It’s grounded but moving and never static. Details of behavior particularize encounters. Nothing is generalized and left at that. With a strong cast and design wizards the Lantern has made CORIOLANUS a visceral, lively and thought-provoking experience that’s not to be missed.

[St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Sts.] March 9- April 16, 2016; lanterntheater.org

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based CurtainUp.com. On twitter @theatrendorphin.