Set in a very particular world with a very particular social and political structure, Córiolanus is not a play that lends itself particularly well to a “concept.” As director Elena Velasco proves with Elysian Theatre’s production, however, sometimes all it takes is a few strong casting choices to reinvigorate an otherwise straightforward Shakespearean tragedy.
The play depicts the rise and fall of Caius Martius (later nicknamed Córiolanus and played by Emily Marsh), the immensely skillful Roman general whose military prowess leads to his election as a political leader. Brash and arrogant and well as clever, Caius’ outspoken beliefs lead to his banishment from Rome and subsequent bloody demise. When staged traditionally, this play is about the dangers of pride and blind power, and although Córiolanus is an intriguing character, he rarely manages to garner much sympathy from the audience.
By reimagining him as a female warrior, this production of Shakespeare’s play is suddenly about gender roles, conformity, and societal expectations. The text doesn’t mesh perfectly with this concept, making the themes seem forced at times, but overall, this casting choice helps the play resonate on a much more dynamic and contemporary level.
While thematically intriguing, this production’s unspecific aesthetic choices make the already complex plot even more difficult to follow. We are in an ambiguous militaristic world: some of the characters look like they just came from a college toga party, others from the punk rock section of a Hot Topic. The story thrives when it is in this latter, modern world, but even in its grungier moments the production struggles to convey the more nuanced aspects of the plot.
The choreography, also by Velasco, underscores the shifting political and emotional atmosphere, and certain moments—Córiolanus wrestling with her new, frilly dress after her election, for example—do a superb job of establishing the world of the play. Overall, however, the political structure against which she is rebelling is unclear, making it difficult to understand her motives and frustrations.
adapted from the play by William Shakespeare
at Lang – Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
Details and tickets
Marsh is surrounded by an accomplished ensemble, most of whom have a firm grasp on Shakespeare’s language. Kim Tuvin delivers a particularly chilling performance as Córiolanus’ manipulative yet loving mother, Volumina. Robert Schumacher, who plays all of the male roles, does a competent job of telling two distinctly different stories: that of Sicinius, Córiolanus’ political rival, and Aufidius, who is both leader of Rome’s rival Volscian army and, in this version, the title character’s lover. The performers tell an engaging, relatively clear version of Shakespeare’s political tragedy, and as an ensemble, they are particularly strong during the movement-based fight scenes.
Audiences would benefit from coming to this production already familiar with the original story—a simple Wikipedia read is more than enough—but the play’s main conflict between self and society shines through the murky narrative. Overall, Elysian Theatre’s Córiolanus puts forth a valiant, relatively successful effort of asking even bigger questions of an already massive story.