There is no doubt the Lantern Theater Company means for their production of Coriolanus to have a modern political resonance. The lobby features a display of American warriors-turned-politicians like Washington, Jackson, and Eisenhower, as well as a (quite difficult) guessing game matching quotes about the rights and duties of citizens to a motley crew of presidents, generals, and dictators. The dramaturgical notes outline the similarity between the difficulties facing both the early Roman Republic and the early Jacobean England of Shakespeare’s time, and link them to modern America’s socio-economic woes and popular unrest. However, the Lantern does not appear to pursue any specific political agenda with their production of Coriolanus, but instead raises questions of individual action in a familiar climate of uncertainty.
The setting – a vaguely dystopian present, or perhaps future, Rome – is brilliantly realized by scenic designer Meghan Jones. An imposing set of carved wooden doors and a slender arcade of Corinthian columns stand above a run-down stage, surrounded by abandoned scaffolding, empty crates, and rusting corrugated metal. The only decorations are a sign stating “PUBLIC GRANARY CLOSED” hanging from the door and historical Roman graffiti on the walls. Jones makes expansive use of the performance space, with entrances emerging from the dark corners of the auditorium and a platform extending stage right behind the audience’s risers. The result is an immersive set blending ancient and modern history, and telling its own story of a powerful city-state fallen on hard times.
Janus Stefanowicz’s costume design picks up on the gloomy circumstances in a nicely subtle fashion, eschewing bright colors while offering a broad palette of neutral shades. The plebeians wear comfortable shirts and leggings, a contrast to the sport coats, deliberately mismatched three-piece suits, and leather trousers of the tribunes and patricians. Some social classes have a stricter dress code: the Roman women favor navy blue dresses with elaborate chokers, while the Volscians stick to an appropriately sinister black. However, all citizens seem only a few steps from a fight with their omni-present combat boots. When the production begins, Stefanowicz’s attention to detail produces immediate results. Members of the proto-mob wear Guy Fawkes masks, referencing both the rebels of Jacobean England and modern anti-establishment groups like Anonymous; when Caius Marcius (not yet Coriolanus) strides on stage, he’s already prepared for battle in an athletic shirt, bracers, and leather harness emblazoned with the dragon he’s so often compared to.
Robert Lyons does a fine job portraying a man supremely confident on the battlefield and supremely uncomfortable off it. Coriolanus’ genuine regard for his wife is equalled only by his difficulty communicating it; his relationship with his mother frequently reverts to a more childish dynamic. His Coriolanus is truly reluctant to take office: though Lyons keeps the character’s disdain for the plebeians, his intense discomfort with attention and public speaking garners sympathy regardless. With these factors weighted against him, it is both inevitable and regrettable when Coriolanus’ political career degenerates into a public relations disaster. Unfortunately, Lyons does not quite manage a natural segue to Coriolanus’ revenge-driven betrayal, adopting an unnatural calm too unlike his previous emotional outbursts. After the confrontation with Volumnia, Lyons’ return to Coriolanus’ original emotional state, regardless of the implications for the character, is a welcome reprisal.
Noted Shakespearean scholar and artist Tina Packer plays Volumnia with a wide-spanning emotional range and intensity that definitely show her kinship to Coriolanus. Packer portrays Volumnia as affectionate, but with an edge both humorous and somewhat creepy by turns: Coriolanus’ bloodthirsty military exploits are recounted with the same kind of maternal pride usually seen at a child’s peewee soccer game. Volumnia’s “madness”, meanwhile, Packer treats more like performative (though genuine) grief, taking advantage of being freed from social norms; it is wholly replaced by steely calm and determination when Volumnia is called on to secure Rome’s safety.
Rounding out the all-around solid performances are Brian McCann as Menenius, maintaining a tricky balance of affable and manipulative; Kirk Wendell Brown as Cominius, embodying the production’s theme of messy reality outpacing noble intentions; and Mary Lee Bednarek as Virgilia, with a nicely subtle performance as the character who perhaps understands Coriolanus the best. Bednarek portrays Virgilia’s anxiety for her husband as justified, given both the danger during and traumatic stress after his battles. Yet Bednarek also brings out the character’s pragmatism and determination: when she and Volumnia take to the streets, she wields a real knife to threaten the tribunes versus Volumnia’s wooden sword. Though Virgilia’s reunion with Coriolanus is sparing with dialogue, Bednarek’s performance of unwavering calm and restrained passion nevertheless speaks volumes.
For the first half of the production, director Charles McMahon succeeds admirably at balancing both the play’s political factions and their modern echoes. Coriolanus is sympathetic, but clearly an unfit candidate for public office; the changeable nature of the plebeian mob is offset by the gravity of their complaints of famine; the nobility of the patricians is countered by their unthinking privilege and manipulation; even the largely repulsive tribunes have a point about Coriolanus’ antipathy to their duties as the people’s representatives. In a particularly clever turn, McMahon incorporates a live news feed into the action, projecting it onto the walls. Besides contextualizing the wide-reaching effects of Coriolanus’ public meltdowns (as well as the discomfort of those forced into the public eye) the news feed also comments on the play’s action: while Coriolanus rallies his troops before Corioli, the audience watches the frantic efforts of the camera crew to save one of their members caught in the crossfire, a grim reminder of glory’s price.
Regrettably, the second half of the play seems to lack such clear vision. Coriolanus’ and Aufidius’ partnership is oddly underplayed; the Volscian state is given no contemporary resonance despite a plethora of potential examples. The play’s rather abrupt ending is exacerbated by these issues, particularly since McMahon focuses on an elaborate fight scene between Coriolanus and the Volscian conspirators instead of the political implications. Aufidius’ closing lament for his nemesis’ fate comes off as hypocritical, given that he personally stabbed Coriolanus with extreme prejudice as he dangled helplessly from the ceiling like a side of beef; even worse, it lacks resolution for their relationship, the political situation, or the play's themes.
However, the play’s last line is still made extremely effective. “Yet he shall have a noble memory” is followed by an ominous drum beat and an immediate cut to darkness: a deliberately unfulfilling ending. This also provides a link to the excellently done penultimate scene, the one time Coriolanus did manage to reconcile his honor and the need for adaptability in morally ambiguous circumstances, by using his power and position to arrange peace between the Romans and the Volscians. Though his friends are elated by this achievement, Virgilia and Volumnia appear subdued, even depressed. The scene ends with Packer turning back and casting one final glance at the audience before a solemn exit, communicating that these women at least understand their victory comes with a price. In a smart and engaging take on the complexities of politics in an uncertain world, the Lantern Theater’s Coriolanus unflinchingly demonstrates that in difficult times there are no easy solutions, yet this more than ever requires individuals to act on their ideals.