Productions of Coriolanus generally do not have to worry that the pivotal scene where the triumphant protagonist gains martial acclaim and the eponymous cognomen may be accompanied by the gently beckoning melody of an ice cream truck. But this and any other distractions (failing mics, barking dogs, rowdy park-goers, incoming jet planes) are merely the trade-off necessary to take advantage of the unique artistic opportunities of a popular outdoor production; the talent behind Shakespeare in Clark Park with their female-led production of Coriolanus is more than capable of defeating such temporary inconveniences.
Director Kittson O’Neill has adapted Coriolanus to match its nearly all-female cast, setting it in an “imagined ancient matriarchy” and changing pronouns and associated words as necessary. The costumes, by designer Natalia de la Torre, are elegant but practical tunics over trousers and flowing half-skirts, with minor differences to mark nationality (the Volscians’ blue and grey sleeveless tunics and sideways skirts), social class (the plebeians’ olive greens in contrast with the patricians’ mauves, reds, and golds), and personal preference (Coriolanus’ refusal to ever take off her sword belt). All the warriors have functional armor and their hair is pulled back from their war paint-marked faces.
Scenic designer D’Vaughn Agu’s set reflects this practicality as well as the characters’ primary focus: conflict. Two wooden fort-like structures sit at opposing ends of the stage area (two for Rome, one for the Volscians), with arrow slits and drawbridges that drop down at the beginning of the production to form platforms for the actors to stand on. The flowing curtains barely visible in the Roman forts hint at more cozy interiors, but most of the characters conduct their business in the open, eschewing the comfort of home for the field (literally). Even the wide area between the forts cannot contain their battles: armies can be seen approaching from the distance, and they clash above the stage on the upper levels of Clark Park’s bowl as well as immediately in front of the audience.
Most of the cast adopts a distinctly broad style, useful for conveying the production’s epic tone (and overcoming the periodic technical difficulties inherent to outdoor sound systems); while this undercuts some of the play’s more subtle moments, it is a good framework for the stronger of the characters. Kimberly Fairbanks plays Menenius as a benevolent smooth-talker, casting herself as the voice of reason in her quest to guide Rome by her own privileged standards. Hannah Gold gives an interesting twist to the tribune Brutus, mixing her self-serving motives with a seemingly genuine concern for her office and a marked irritation at both Coriolanus’ and the mob’s political ineptitude. Emily Kaye Lynn’s Aufidius, meanwhile, personifies youthful energy and passion, whether raring for a fight or tackling Coriolanus to the ground with a joyful hug after they make an alliance.
Charlotte Northeast stars as Coriolanus, nicely fleshing out the contrast between the intimidating warrior and the awkward would-be politician with energy and even some leavening bits of humor. At the beginning of the play, Northeast portrays Coriolanus as clearly comfortable in a military setting, joking with her fellow soldier Titus Lartius (a solid Iman Aaliyah) before hurling herself into battle with complete fearlessness. Out of the field, however, her dislike of the plebeians contains a complicated mixture of wariness of large crowds, an almost phobic distaste for the lower classes, and an instant rage at any reminder of cowardice. Even in Coriolanus’ closest relationships, whether chatting with her family or discussing her political career, Northeast conveys an increasing discomfort as emotions become more intense: prowling around the set like a caged tiger and building up to a breakdown at her final confrontation with Volumnia (Judith Lightfoot Clarke). Northeast’s performance clearly show that Coriolanus feels truly herself only during a fight – and as events unravel, she responds by picking more and more of them until she finally loses.
Despite the large supporting cast of extras and the massive spectacle of the stage’s space in the park, O’Neill keeps the production contained and moving at an exciting pace (sometimes a little too exciting: directly connecting the first two scenes in Act IV with no other set-up gives the impression that rumors of Volumnia’s madness managed to spread in the thirty seconds between Coriolanus leaving and the tribunes running into her family). The fight scenes, choreographed by Jacqueline Holloway, are visceral and exhilarating: a melee of brutal clashes of swords, spears, and shields that range up and down the hills of Clark Park. Coriolanus and Aufidius’ thrilling final confrontation replaces the play’s original (and somewhat convoluted) assassination plot with a one-on-one duel that mirrors their first fight; Aufidius’ regret is much more palpable when she delivers her final lines still clutching the body of her slain nemesis.
The biggest change caused by the dramatis personae’s gender flips seems to be in the relationship between Coriolanus and Volumnia: her mother is no longer a gender role-defying warhawk who was never allowed to fight herself, but instead a willing proponent of the social order that shapes Coriolanus into a fighter and leads to her downfall. This in turn ties into the production’s larger socio-political themes, where each group (the patricians, plebeians, and Volscians) causes its own destruction by making use of the wrong person – Coriolanus. But though it eschews stereotypes and banishes the male gaze, the production does not seem to use its changes to offer much in the way of specific gender commentary.
However, perhaps that is part of the point. When facing the conflicts and dealing with the privileges and social pressures that drive Coriolanus, individuals of any gender would encounter similar difficulty. Shakespeare in Clark Park’s production of Coriolanus may have to battle the ambient distractions of a busy city, but in return it offers a spectacle with truly universal themes.