Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Strong Women Take Over "Coriolanus"

Nike Imoru in Coriolanus (John Ulman)
Coriolanus – Fight Like a Bitch
Rebel Kat Productions
(at 12th Avenue Arts)
Through November 18, 2017

Coriolanus is said to be a real general in Rome around the 5th Century. Caius Marcius attacked the Volscians of the city of Corioli viciously, and won. For that win, he was awarded the name “Coriolanus”. Some time later, during a grain shortage in Rome, Coriolanus advocated for a policy that would harshly affect the plebeians and the populace caused him to be put on trial and he was thrown out of Rome.

Coriolanus went to Aufidius, his former rival leader of the Volscians and offered to help them destroy Rome. This is both the story of ancient historians and of Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus. The Volscians attacked and looked to overcome Roman defenses. Roman leadership, led by Coriolanus’ mother (Volumnia in the play) and wife (Virgilia in the play) came and pled for peace and Coriolanus heeded their pleas and took their appeal to Aufidius.

While historians differ about what happened next, Shakespeare has Coriolanus summarily killed by a Volscian who cannot forgive him for killing the Volscian’s family. This is what makes Coriolanus one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. While the play is rarely done, even by companies that do only Shakespeare’s plays (Seattle Shakespeare Company did it for the first, and so far last, time in 2012), the tale of this man has infused itself into many other writings and presentations, including movies and poems.

Now comes Rebel Kat, a new company that has mounted this particular, difficult Shakespeare play in an all-female production. There are plenty of powerful women actors, lead by Nike Imoru, who lords it over everyone in an intolerably awful manner, just as Coriolanus might have done. Also, Wendy Robie plays Volumnia, Kate Witt plays Menenius, an adviser, Colleen Carey plays Aufidius, Amanda Rae plays a Volscian, and Ayo Tushinde plays a put-upon plebeian. Everyone in the cast gives solid performance value.

Rebel Kat attaches a subtitle, “Fight Like a Bitch,” and they’ve changed pronouns from male to female. This has the effect of turning all the marriages into lesbian ones, though that has little to do with the plot, so the only issue you might have run through your head is, “how did they get pregnant?”

Directed by Emily Penick, the stage is a long platform dividing the audience into courtside seating. This might suggest watching the war unfold like a game and is a reasonable idea, though sometimes a speaking actor might be obscured by another from time to time, in front of where you’re sitting. A small confusion has to do with some entrances and exits variously being from different sides that change the location of the play. A few boxes placed and replaced on the stage are the only adornments and don’t help establish a “where” at all.

This is not my favorite Shakespeare play, by a long shot. The story is really quite limited and could have been turned into a 90 minute one-act to tell such a story in current vernacular. It feels very very long in Shakespearean English, and there are a huge number of repetitious speeches. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these producers should have shortened the play, though there also was no copyright barrier to stop them if they had decided to.
However, one has to look at their choice to see if one can glean answers to “why now?” and “to say what?” The play, unlike almost any other Shakespeare play, has a very distinct presence by “the populace,” who plays a significant role in rebelling against what they see as tyrannical behavior by Coriolanus. This is ripe material to make points about public opinion and politics and to make clear connections to our own moment in time. There does not seem to be such a parallel drawn in this production.

In fact, besides wanting to do a production with all women, where usually only men are allowed to do these roles, there is not a clear other reason for this play, now. Nor does it make a clear statement of intent. I’m sure they would like to have that be clear, but while it is a credible production of this particular play, there is nothing particularly distinct about it besides the women. In that regard, it doesn’t seem quite enough.

In summary, the Shakespearean script is problematic and very overly repetitious, the production is generally fine, but it’s less “special” than I would have hoped in clear intention. So, please go if you have never seen the play and wish to enlarge your Shakespearean experience. If you’re looking for something revolutionary in intent, it’s probably not strong enough for that. But if you love the idea of seeing strong women play all the roles, that is another enjoyable aspect.

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