REVIEW WRITTEN BY ANDERS BACK
For Digital First Media
We like strong leaders. We also like to knock them down.
A strong leader must have more than just the ability to dominate physically. The leader must also be able to assess, persuade and manage. Leaders must be fluid – able to follow advice yet always capable of decisive action.
With remarkable timing Lantern Theater in Philadelphia has brought to their stage a true tour de force about leadership, a fast paced yet completely accessible production of William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” to remind us yet again why we need the theater arts and how after four centuries the Bard of Avon can still speak to us in a modern voice.
Shakespeare’s era had its share of unrest and political wrangling. He was likely mirroring English class conflict in the 1600’s when he penned his tragedy “Coriolanus,” in which a strong military leader in the early years of the Roman republic is ensnared by politics and thus destroyed.
Our own history is replete with military men who had remarkable, often checkered careers that by temperament and chance ended in controversy, disgrace or obscurity. From Horatio Gates and George McClellan to Douglas MacArthur, George Patton and David Petraeus, they reached the heights of fame and jumped (or were pushed) off.
Their respective woes often began in war but were worsened by politics; in particular small “d” democratic politics. Generals deal with the shifting and painful realities of the battlefield, politicians with the moods of the voters and their own personal ambitions. Still, we continue our search for ideal men and women to lead us at work, in government and in war even as research shows again and again that democratic decision-making (however imperfect) is both preferred and more productive than despotism.
This is the great flaw of Coriolanus, for in scholar Frank Kermode’s words Coriolanus “is the ungoverned governor, the ill-educated prince….unsympathetic, harsh and graceless.” Victorious in battle but uncomfortable as a hero, even his friends notice that after the battle that earned him his name “our spoils he kick’d at, and look’d upon things precious as they were the common muck of the world.”
Director Charles McMahon’s vigorous production is staged as a mashup of historical periods (19th century clothes, ancient and modern weapons and television cameras) and the cast employs the backstage, seating area, aisles and a scaffolding in a constant, vivid mélange of motion. A characteristic touch of this unconventional but compelling staging is the scene set in Rome’s forum with the ever present live cameras of the SPQR (Senātus Populusque Rōmānus) Television Network covering Coriolanus’ nomination for tribune.
But it is the marvelous language that one wants to hear, the words that evoke scene and circumstance such as the hero’s tribute to Valeria, friend of his wife Virgilia: “The moon of Rome, chaste as the icicle that’s curded by the frost from purest snow.” This cast and production delivers a crisp and emotional reading of Shakespeare’s dialogue rarely heard on local stages.
Heading an outstanding cast in his Lantern debut is Shakespeare Theater Company Academy and Stella Adler Conservatory graduate Robert Lyons in the title role, navigating one of Shakespeare’s most complex roles with energy and subtlety. In battle scenes he is a fanatical commander soldiers follow (almost) without question. But when facing Roman political backlash along with his influential and scheming mother Volumnia he can become a little boy in need of solace and encouragement. Lyons has the skill to shuttle effortlessly between the tough and the self-doubting sides of this ambivalent would-be conqueror.
As Volumnia, noted Shakespeare scholar and actress Tina Packer brings an unmatched depth of knowledge and feeling to the role of a loving, manipulative and somewhat monstrous mother keenly aware of what the public wants from their heroes. Explaining carefully how to humble himself before the plebians “thy knee bussing the stones (for in such business action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ ignorant more learned than the ears)” she is always pushing the reluctant warrior to assume the high offices she intends for him.
Charlie DelMarcelle is also compelling as his foe Aufidius the Volscian general who admires Coriolanus but has been able to manage his own inner beast and his ambition, watching Coriolanus’ struggles in near sympathy despite their conflict.
Always nearby and plotting to bring down the new hero are “the herdsmen of the beastly plebeians” the tribunes Brutus and Menenius (Leonard Haas and Brian McCann), who together depict a splendidly scheming pair of politicians who manipulate “the rabble” and make it their task to pour political cold water over the fiery but naive Coriolanus, supposedly for the good of the unhappy plebes.
Any parallel audiences may find to current events is completely intentional and adds to the impact of this powerful Lantern production.