BWW Review: CORIOLANUS at Praxis Stage
Praxis Stage's Coriolanus is punk. It is metal. It is what too many theaters in Boston try to be and it succeeds in ways that should have the rest of the theatre community taking notes (or at least scrambling for tickets to their next production). Coriolanus is a late Shakespearean tragedy that follows the downfall of a Roman warrior whose aggressive nature and volatile temperament make him an unfit political leader. The show is a success because of the evidently uninhibited passions of the artists involved and the ability of the co-directors, Audrey Seraphin and Daniel Boudreau, to effectively act in accordance with their purported philosophies and priorities.
Seraphin first. In her program note, she admits to feeling a disconnect with Shakespeare. She writes, "as a woman of color, it is easy to feel alienated from work you know was never written with you in mind." It is evident from early on in the production that carving out a space in which women of color could exist consciously, productively, and authentically within the text was vital for Seraphin. She makes space in a way that refocuses the storyline while maintaining dramaturgical accuracy. For instance, a scene in Act I featuring Coriolanus' mother Volumnia (Sharon Squires) and his wife Virgilia (Ekemini Ekpo) takes on new meaning when both characters, lamenting the absence of a man at war and discussing battle tactics, are black. A servant declares the approach of gentle lady, Valeria, and Karimah Williams enters with golden hoops dangling from her ears, fresh with the energy and wit of any contemporary gossip. Encouraging Virgilia to abandon her sewing, she quips:
"You would be another Penelope: yet, they say, all/
the yarn she spun in Ulysses' absence did but fill/
Ithaca full of moths."
Allowing three black women to take up space on a Boston stage in the middle of a Shakespearean tragedy is an overtly political act. The space is co-opted and reinvigorated in a way that feels familiar and real without defying Shakespeare's intentions or tokenizing actors to prove a point. Likewise, every cast member's race seems to be considered and embraced rather than ignored. This was an appropriate text for Seraphin to tackle, as Volumnia especially embarks on a complicated power struggle against all that it means to be a mother to a powerful man. Squires and Seraphin approach her arch with dignity, and her welcome to the enemy Volscian's capital in the final scene is haunting.
Boudreau, who not only co-directed the production but serves as Praxis Stage's artistic director and plays the role of paunchy patrician Menenius, is a refreshing figurehead for a Boston theatre. His completely un-pompous, un-decorated, un-egotistical air permeates the company from the signs outside letting Dorchester residents know tickets are "JUST 20 BUCKS" to the way he delivers text like a wrapped gift to the audience. He takes care that every phrase is understood by the packed crowds listening and when he speaks, one cannot help but feel accommodated. As feel-good articles circulate Facebook purporting the community-strengthening properties of Shakespeare's texts (i.e. Shakespeare in correctional facilities, rehabilitation centers, schools for students with Down syndrome, etc.) Boudreau has created a company that fuses the fibers of community-building into its artistic processes. The production holds artistic merit while also illuminating an embrace of its community that many larger institutions would love to replicate.
The pair have delivered a hit. Blazing clamp lights and dangling scarves provide a lively atmosphere in which the actors run, shout, pant, and sweat in incredibly close quarters. The pacing (with the exception of a few inextricable blackouts) is lively and keeps the audience constantly engaged. While the post-apocalyptic setting at times becomes distracting and seems heavy-handed, overall the story is clear, the staging is clean, and the energy is consistent.
Zair Silva is a dynamic Coriolanus, believable in every instant as a powerful warrior. He tends to overcompensate with volume in such a small, ambient space, and his shouting can make him hard to understand, but his intentions are generally clear. Overall, the piece is too abrasively loud in the first half, missing the possibilities of the intimate space, but the second half provides variation with tender moments of reconciliation and reflection.
Marge Dunn's fight choreography is captivating. Complicated sequences with make-shift weaponry and hand-to-hand combat are executed with vigorous precision, and no less attention is given to a comedic attack of three servants by Coriolanus late in the second half. Choreography by Ingrid Oslund, while well-placed and sound in theory, feels clunky and jarringly inauthentic within an otherwise feral universe.
Coriolanus' enemy, Aufidius, is a recurring delight played by Jonah Toussaint, whose elastic face snaps into cartoonish expressions around a pair of mischievous eyes that twinkle as he delivers jabs and insults. Toussaint's natural grip of the text entices one to wonder which of Shakespeare's roles he will approach next. The other star within the cast is ensemble member, Rowen Halpin, who brings a clarity and distinct cleverness to several comedic roles, belying her youthful appearance. She has a way of delivering Shakespeare's language that seems contemporary and inviting.
Overall, the piece was refreshing. A reminder of what it means to create theatre with one's audience in mind, a reminder of how to engage with race on stage without performing the same few tokenizing musicals ad nauseum, and a call to all of us to return to square one (because sometimes the best theatre is performed for a crowd sitting in mismatched chairs in a gym in Dorchester).