Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
In a program note, dramaturg Meghan Winch states that the production, helmed by Artistic Director Charles McMahon, simultaneously exists in three distinct time periods: the founding days of the Roman republic, the play's historical setting; the early 1600s, when Shakespeare wrote it; and our modern era. The choice is justified because "all three periods are characterized by political upheaval." This is the kind of artist's statement that is meant to drive audiences wild, but McMahon's actual production does little to follow through on the lofty promise of historical melding. Two ensemble members play a roving press crew whose cameras project evening news-style dispatches on the walls of the theaters; aside from this insertion, the rest of McMahon's staging feels no different than any run-of-the-mill modern Shakespeare assumption.
The Roman warrior Caius Marcius Coriolanus is undone by the tragic flaw of hubris. He believes that he has been ordained by the gods to rule the hoi polloi; when the Plebeians question his authority, his prideful rage causes his downfall and leads to his exile. There are certainly modern parallels to this dangerous, autocratic style of leadership, both with the United States and abroad, but McMahon does little to foreground this essential element of Coriolanus' undoing. Playing Coriolanus, Robert Lyons more often comes across as a meek pretender than a truly volatile figureone never believes that he is willing to burn his own city-state to the ground to sate the jealous rage caused by his rejection.
The conception of Coriolanus as a patsy is supported by the text; after all, it is his strong-willed mother Volumnia who encourages him to become Rome's leader. In playing up this element, though, McMahon and Lyons leave little room for the other, more complicated facets of Coriolanus' personality. Why would he feel such rage at the people for denying him a job that he didn't want in the first place, and doesn't seem to want at any point in this production? Why take up arms with his once forsworn enemy, the Volscian leader Aufidius (Charlie DelMarcelle), against his own family and friends? I suppose that Janus Stefanowicz's costumesall studded leather and combat bootsare meant to characterize Coriolanus' warrior psyche more than his own behavior. In this case, however, the clothes do not make the man.
Volumnia is played here by the legendary Shakespearean Tina Packer, founder of the Massachusetts-based Shakespeare & Company. Her presence lends an air of authority to the production, as does her old-school technique; she intones every cadence and rhythm of Shakespeare's poetry, and her performance style is big enough to fill the Academy of Music. Yet I couldn't help thinking that her histrionic delivery was at odds with this small-scale production, and only further highlighted the imbalance between her hearty Volumnia and Lyons' lily-livered Coriolanus. Tragic moments in the textas when Volumnia and her daughter-in-law Virgilia (Mary Lee Bednarek, weak throughout) prostate themselves before the Roman councilmen who orchestrated Coriolanus' banishmentare here met with unintentional laughter.
Several supporting performances momentarily elevate this production beyond its poorly executed concept. DelMarcelle does good work as Aufidius, never letting the audience forget that Coriolanus is only as valuable to him as he is useful to his own ends. Kirk Wendell Brown brings noble bearing to Cominius, Coriolanus' Roman mentor; you feel true hurt when the exiled general, now aligned with the Volscians, rejects the man he once considered a father figure. Brian McCann's Menenius is appropriately preening, and the fast-rising local actress Hannah Van Sciver is pleasing in a host of small roles.
Still, I cannot help but lament that this half-baked production never quite finds its footing. Coriolanus is a play that deserves attention, especially todayit addresses the limitations of power and pride with a gimlet eye. It deserves to be staged often, and well. Lantern's production cannot be faulted for ambition, but like the title character himself, it is undone by the weight of its own importance.
Coriolanus continues at St. Stephen's Theater, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia, through Sunday, April 16, 2017. Tickets ($15-42) can be purchased online at www.lanterntheater.org or by calling 215-829-0395.