Image: Coriolanus: Nail The Conquering Hero

Tina Packer and Mary Lee Bednarek in Lantern Theater Company's production of Coriolanus by William Shakespeare, streaming on demand June 1 - 27, 2021. Tickets at lanterntheater.org.

Those lesser-known Shakespeare plays spin in and out of popularity depending on the relevance the times lend them. Coriolanus is certainly one of those plays, and it would seem that our current period is an especially ripe season for Coriolanus.

Coriolanus also happens to be one of the serious challenges in the Shakespeare trove. Productions of this late tragedy tend to fall into one of two categories: disaster or triumph. The Lantern Theatre has now brought back a filmed version of their 2017 production for a sound reason: it clearly lands on the triumph side of Coriolanus productions.

The plot of Coriolanus is much simpler than most of the Bard’s late works. The title character is a celebrated Roman general during the early years of the Roman Republic. He’s a first-rate warrior, fierce and bold, and bears numerous scars to prove his readiness to take it to the enemy.

The enemy he has just helped vanquish is the Volscians, a powerful tribe whose domain lay just south of Rome. Returning to Rome a hero, he’s expected to follow the career path of most successful generals in those days and become a consul. (Consul was the highest government office in the Roman Republic.)

But this hero is reluctant about seeking a consulship because he would have to campaign for that office, and that would mean appealing to the plebians, the lower classes, for their support. The problem is that Caius Marcius Coriolanus is a proud patrician and views the plebians with dire disdain. The disdain is mutual; most plebians blame Caius Marcius for the loss of their grain subsidy during a near-famine. That charge carries a certain measure of truth: the patrician warrior declares that he doesn’t feel the plebians deserve that grain subsidy because they have never fought in battle for Rome. Not quite the campaign slogan a candidate can ride to victory.

Nevertheless, when Coriolanus’ highly ambitious mother Volumnia urges him to pursue the consulship, his reluctance melts and he declares himself a candidate. Backed by a sitting consul and a respected senator, the general quickly secures the support of the patrician-packed Senate and then sets out to win over the plebians.

At first, it looks like he’s succeeded, but his smooth run to the consulship hits a nasty speed bump in the form of the two tribunes. (The tribunes were the elected representatives of the plebians.) The pair despise Coriolanus and conspire to scuttle his campaign. When it looks like the plebians are about to reject his candidacy, Coriolanus gives full vent to his patrician contempt for popular rule.

His high-blooded arrogance not only dooms his candidacy, but also … ahh, now we’re getting into the realm of spoilers. I decline the role of spoiler but let me just assure you that this is when things get really interesting.  

As mentioned above, the Lantern Theatre’s rendition of this play is a triumph. This is a high-octane production that rarely takes the foot off the pedal. I must admit that I took a number of short breaks during my first viewing of the show as it was so intense. For that reason, I was glad that this was a filmed version of the original live show.

Director Charles McMahon and his team have rejigged the play as a quasi-modern parable that peels away most of the ancient Roman trappings to get to the heart of Shakespeare’s tragic tale. There’s not a single toga anywhere in sight, and jackboots, not sandals, are the preferred footwear for both males and females. Some of the men’s clothing looks like late Victorian borrowings, while the warriors look like they just stepped off the set of a war movie. (And the war in that movie could be from 200 B.C.E. or a very recent conflict.)

Other elements presented here are far from both ancient Rome and Jacobean England. In the opening moments, the angry plebians get stirred up by their leader, who wields a megaphone. The rioters carry signs with slogans like “Bread, Peace and Land” (the slogan of the Bolshevik revolution.)

The battles are fought not with only swords, but with assault rifles spitting out lead in rapid fire. (And we’re treated to quite a few battle scenes.) The most contemporary element: the staging area is flanked by two large TV monitors that summarize the scene before us with “Breaking News” chyrons.

But all these elements would be nothing more than flashy distractions if they weren’t simply strong visual supports for the clutch of fine performances that make this production the success it is.

At the center of everything is Robert Lyons in the title role. Lyons punches out his performance in many of the scenes, but that’s entirely fitting for this character, a tragic hero whose tragic flaw is all too obvious. The fierceness and obsessive dynamic of Coriolanus is rendered well by Lyons, but the actor is also able to expose the other dimensions of the character when the warrior finds himself out of his element.

As Volumnia, the hero’s mother, Tina Packer proves a powerful force all the way through. Packer is thoroughly convincing  as the anchor of her son’s ambition – an anchor which later becomes a millstone around his neck. Her tragedy is the deep echo of her son’s tragedy.

Kirk Wendell Brown is solid as Cominius, the consul who ardently pushes the  career of his protégé Coriolanus. Brian McCann is quite strong as Menenius Agrippa, the dogged supporter of Coriolanus who seems to share his contempt for the lower orders. McCann manages to bring out all the aspects of this character who balances on the edge of obsequious but is capable of oozing out bile when squeezed too hard by his antagonists.

As Virgilia, the hero’s wife, Mary Lee Bednarek gives us a sympathetic portrait of a woman who remains loyal to her man even as she knows she can never compete with his greater love: the battlefield.

David Bardeen and Leonard C. Haas are fittingly despicable as the scheming tribunes who stage-manage the electoral defeat and subsequent fall from grace of Coriolanus. Charlie DelMarcelle delivers a potent performance as Tullus Aufidius, the Volscian general whose relationship with Coriolanus is … well, let’s say it’s complicated. (At one point, Tullus tells us, “Would I find him, would I wash my fierce hands in his heart.” And that’s a compliment.)

All of the above performers except for Lyons and Packer also take on multiple roles in the ensemble. They and the other actors who fill out the various smaller roles in the show are a major part of the success of this production. Director Charles McMahon teamed with his talented cast to bring out intense personalities even in those smaller roles.  It stands as one of the strongest ensemble performances in recent years.

More, the director and cast manage to overcome the restricted space of the St. Stephen’s Theater to produce a powerful rendering of this work that usually requires a large stage for its sprawling battle scenes.

Directors McMahon and the actors even manage to squeeze a few laughs out of this sour and dour play. These occasional lighter moments arrive quite welcome in a production that captures the harrowing aspects of Shakespeare’s play so compellingly.

Coriolanus will be available via online streaming through June 27. Tickets are available on both the Lantern Theatre and Theatre Philadelphia websites. Once you’ve purchased your ticket, you can view the production at any time for 48 hours after you first click on.

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