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'Coriolanus' Review: A Feisty Female Take on the Roman War Classic

Genevieve Simon and Patrice Jean-Baptiste in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Coriolanus (2023).
Genevieve Simon and Patrice Jean-Baptiste in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Coriolanus (2023). By Courtesy of Nile Scott Studios
By Sophia N. Downs, Contributing Writer

A drumbeat pounds as combat boots march quickly through the room to stand on the bottom two steps, one person on each. Soon, the shouts begin. The Roman commoners are hungry. They demand corn. And they find Caius Martius at fault.

“Coriolanus,” Shakespeare’s tragic tale of class struggle, war, and ego, runs from March 30 to April 23 at the BCA Plaza Theater. Director A. Nora Long’s vision is brought to life in the modern-verse adaptation crafted by Sean San José. This original adaptation of Shakespeare’s timeless classic proves that lessons from the past remain strikingly relevant today. Presented by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project in collaboration with Play On Shakspeare, this adaptation’s changes in language, casting, and stage direction successfully reimagine “Coriolanus” while staying true to the original plot.

Martius, despite being considered an enemy of the people, wins the title “Coriolanus” through a military victory at the town of Corioli. While he is encouraged to vie for the highest political office, he struggles to display the humility owed to the public. Ultimately, he marches on his own city, Rome, but is persuaded not to attack. Yet, in the end, he is killed.

“Coriolanus” is a male-dominated story. The key players, with the notable exception of Coriolanus’s wife and mother, are all men. Traditionally, even the female characters would have been played by men. Long’s adaptation turns this on its head; as the first scene begins, one choice is immediately obvious: the introduction of an entirely female cast. This is not the first time an adaptation of “Coriolanus” has had the male parts played by women. In this case, however, while it was inspiring to see women in roles they may not have traditionally been cast in, this adaptation failed to reimagine the content of the characters’ performance for a female actress. There is further potential for innovation and refurbishment of the original story through the use of female characters. While the first step of using female characters was taken, the further step of changing the characters as a result of that creative decision was not taken.

Right off the bat, the women stand on the steps, partially immersed in the audience. Clothed in army green cargo pants and black topics, the play erupts with the fervor of impassioned common people. Emily Woods Hogue’s minimalist costuming evokes the toughness of a military culture while allowing the focus to remain on the acting over the costumes.

Then, Coriolanus (Genevieve Simon) enters the stage. With a seething smile and boatloads of swagger, Coriolanus’s cockiness oozes across the theater. Shakespeare may not have imagined Gaius Martius wearing Doc Martens, but the effect is the same: a tough, seasoned warrior, with an added touch of sass. Simon’s fiery performance carried much of the emotional power of the play.

The show plays with the boundary between present and past — changing much of the language, but keeping the Roman setting. San José’s updated language keeps all of Shakespeare’s wit, while becoming more accessible to contemporary audiences. Similar to Shakespeare’s original poetic style, the cadence and rhyme carry viewers from one scene to the next. San José was successful in creating dialogue that entertained, amused, and moved audiences, while preserving the beloved aspects of Shakespeare’s original text.

The technical design plays a large role in successfully creating this striking performance. Throughout the production, the actresses navigate the performance space through no fewer than three exits and entrances. Further, audience members are kept on their toes by surprising creative technical choices. Lights go up, briefly reminding viewers of the reality they left behind when the show began, yet also pulling them into a time far away.

Foreboding drum sound effects, designed by Mackenzie Adamick, amplify the drumbeat of combat boots navigating the stage, like the sound of a distant army approaching. Aside from these sounds, sound effects were limited, allowing viewers to focus on the eruptive emotion portrayed by the dialogue. This high-intensity, emotional drama offers moments of poignant silence; the emptiness punctuating the power of speech.

Cristina Todesco, the scenic designer, paints an abstract, versatile landscape upon which the drama plays out. By the end of the show, the black box looks nearly the same as at the start. Audiences stare at abstract, partially torn Roman inspired paintings. The paintings seem inspired by the Romantic period; art reimagining another period, the same effort undertaken by the adaptation as a whole. The only discernible difference lies on the raised platform at the back of the theater. Where once five chairs previously lied tipped over with two standing, they now all stand upright.

This production successfully introduces a freshness to “Coriolanus,” leaving viewers thinking about issues of government and society relevant to the present moment. However, the production missed an opportunity to lean further into a female lens, thus leaving some of its potential for innovative performance untapped. Nonetheless, this production of “Coriolanus” is a moving reflection on universal themes of pride, humility, and the power of the common people.

—Staff writer Sophia N. Downs can be reached at sophia.downs@thecrimson.com.

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