Washougal Art & Music Festival

A fresh ‘Coriolanus’: Shakespeare for today

Review: Portland Center Stage's riveting production translates the politics and conflicts of ancient Rome to the harsh and shifting power plays of the contemporary world.

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Shakespeare's "Coriolanus," in a modern translation and a female/nonbinary cast, delves into matters of power and politics that feel both ancient and contemporary. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” in a modern translation and a female/nonbinary cast, delves into matters of power and politics that feel both ancient and contemporary. Front: Jessika D. Williams in the title role. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

There isn’t a more exciting theater director working today than Rosa Joshi. Specializing in classical work and most especially Shakespeare, she and her frequent collaborators unfailingly employ strong text work; inventive staging, movement, and design; and a fierce quality of intention to produce some of Shakespeare’s most challenging and inaccessible works, making their relevance pop and moving you to the edge of your seat. 

Coriolanus is Joshi’s first production at Portland Center Stage, presented in collaboration with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (where the show will be staged later this year and where Joshi now serves as associate artistic director) and in partnership with Play On Shakespeare and upstart crow collective, which Joshi co-founded with actors Betsy Schwartz and Kate Wisniewski.

If you haven’t yet seen the work of upstart crow collective, you are in for an extra treat. United by a shared love of Shakespeare and by frustration regarding a lack of opportunities for women to embody and drive the production of great classical work, Schwartz, Wisniewski, and Joshi founded the collective in 2006. Their mission is to produce classical plays with racially diverse casts of female and nonbinary people, reimagining those works for a contemporary audience. 

They have mounted acclaimed productions of Shakespeare’s political plays in Seattle, in Ashland with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and in Louisville, Kentucky. The productions I have seen in Seattle and Ashland have been among the most riveting theater experiences of my life, helping me make connections to my own experience that Shakespeare—and particularly the political plays—rarely evoke for me. 

Tempers rise and alliances shift amid the turmoil of "Coriolanus." Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Tempers rise and alliances shift amid the turmoil of “Coriolanus.” Above: Jessika D. Williams as Coriolanus, Caro Zeller as Aufidius. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

This production of Coriolanus, which continues through May 19, carries forward that work beautifully. Working with a talented cast of eight female and nonbinary actors, nearly all of whom are playing multiple roles, the production propels you through a story of political turmoil which, though set in the early days of the Roman Republic, feels current. There is no confusion or fussiness about gender; the cast is not performing in drag, hiding their bodies, or donning mustaches. Gender somehow doesn’t matter in the same way; the actors show up with everything to get to the truth of character and story. 

Somehow, seeing performers who we are not accustomed to seeing in a story driven by male characters, directed in ways that capitalize on the natural gifts of these performers, brings to the surface insights that we might not have spotted otherwise. The production offers visceral evidence that our usual ways of seeing and presenting may unconsciously hinder and limit our perception. Joshi and her collaborators spark an appetite for what riches we might find with expanded imagination.

Jessika D. Williams is especially riveting as Coriolanus (first known as Marcius), the war hero at the center of the play, surrounded by politicians and the commoners (plebeians) whom they seek to manipulate and control. Her Marcius is powerful and impatient, not especially gracious or flexible, but perhaps truer to himself than anyone else in the story. 

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The action occurs during a time of turmoil, when a shortage of corn has led the plebeians to stage an uprising against the powerful elites who control their access to sustenance. A prominent patrician (Wizniewski) enlists Marcius to help him quiet the masses by opening up a space for a couple of tributes (including a calculating Schwartz) to represent them in the Senate, setting up some of the further conflicts in the play. Marcius heads off to battle and soon returns victorious, only to be shoved into political leadership, which does not suit him but serves the political ends of others. 

To Marcius, battle makes sense and is a space where he can count on being scarily well-equipped. Not so with politics; he has no stomach for saying things he doesn’t mean and for playing the requisite power moves, where what is named often conflicts with what is happening. 

In "Coriolanus" the common people are hungry, the leaders won't release the grain stores, and unrest spreads across Rome. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
In “Coriolanus” the common people are hungry, the leaders won’t release the grain stores, and unrest spreads across Rome. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Much of the action involves him being pressured into roles he doesn’t want, taking back agency, then being enlisted again in ways that don’t suit him. He has no patience for anything except the sort of direct action that he can make sense of. Like all the characters, he shifts allegiances, but somehow his reasons feel more honest. He can’t find the will to conform to a world where leaders are heralded only insofar as they serve the agendas of those holding the actual power. Williams keeps us rooting for him.

The play is all about power games. Alliances shift, blame is passed around, characters manipulate and change their minds and adjust their moral codes. The production employs some deft stagecraft to shift cast members from role to role—from plebeian to patrician, from enemy to spouse—with smart costume adjustments and movement, often separated by no more than a moment. Caro Zeller is especially strong in a variety of disparate roles, shifting on a dime from rabblerouser to meek spouse to battle rival. 

It all adds to the sense of energy constantly moving, from person to person, from group to group, illuminating lies and base motives. These Romans, apart from Marcius/Coriolanus, make so many trades that their characters and interests feel too malleable to allow for individual will. Even Marcius’s powerful mother, Volumnia (an imposing Mari Nelson), radically shifts her persona in the end. Marcius’s shifts are driven by more consistent motivation, with the result that he is not useful enough to survive.

Sarah Hughey's lighting and Sara Ryung Clements's smart costume and scenic design help build a world for "Coriolanus" that feels ancient and current at the same time. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Sarah Hughey’s lighting and Sara Ryung Clements’s smart costume and scenic design help build a world for “Coriolanus” that feels ancient and current at the same time. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Joshi has enlisted a variety of artists to make a complicated and chaotic story surprisingly clear.  Movement director Alice Gosti, a longtime collaborator, works magic in inventing ways for the cast to move and struggle in order to convey crowd protest, fierce battle scenes, chaos, and power games of all kinds, all via the bodies of eight performers. Jeb Burris marshals the intensity of fights and intimacy, especially between Zeller and Williams as the main and most complicated combatants. Sara Ryung Clements’s smart costume and scenic design build a world that feels ancient and current at the same time, and lighting by Sarah Hughey and sound design by Caroline Eng convey subtle shifts and urgency.

The connection to Play On Shakespeare adds an additional layer of excitement to this production.  Play On is an ambitious project to create modern-language translations of Shakespeare’s plays—to pump additional life into Shakespeare’s work by, in the words of co-founder Lue Douthit, “translat[ing] conventions from one time period into ours.” Its modern text translations seek to illuminate the power and humor and nuance that Shakespeare intended but which can be hard to quickly grasp while watching an original text production all these centuries later. 

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Play On has enlisted a host of first-rate playwrights and dramaturgs to create modern text translations, and this production works with modern text by Sean San José, artistic director of the Magic Theater in San Francisco. His translation works well with Joshi’s direction to make Shakespeare’s text pop. You’ll likely forget that you are watching a translation, because this production works so deftly to help you enter and engage in the work that is so clearly Shakespeare. You couldn’t ask for a better or more unmissable invitation to engaged this classic and current work of theater.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Darleen Ortega has been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003 and is the first woman of color and the only Latina to serve in that capacity.  She has been writing about theater and films as an “opinionated judge” for many years out of pure love for both.

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