Portland Center Stage Gives Shakespeare’s Coriolanus Modern Touches

The all-female cast historical tragedy plays through May 19.

Cast Members in "Coriolanus," photo by Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stage. (Jingzi Zhao/Jingzi Photography)

To most younger viewers, “Coriolanus” is the first name of Hunger Games arch-villain President Snow, but Suzanne Collins was not the first to use the name. William Shakespeare did it four centuries earlier, dramatizing the story of an exiled general for the Roman Republic who turned to a rival Italic tribe to besiege the great city.

It’s nowhere near as much a household name as King Lear or Julius Caesar, but the similarities are there— a high-ranking man with even higher ambitions, destined to fall from grace, with complex relationships to the women in his life.

Since April 26, Portland Center Stage has been sharing a uniquely modernized production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, featuring an all-female cast. PCS is presenting this production together with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (whose associate artistic director, Rosa Joshi, directs this production) and upstart crow collective, which specializes in providing opportunities for women and nonbinary actors.

This production features a modern verse translation by Sean San José, which subtly updates the original dialogue while maintaining Shakespeare’s rhythm and wit. Impoverished commoners, denied sufficient supplies of corn (as in maize, though Shakespeare used the word as a catch-all term for grain), chant in protest with cardboard signs and megaphones. Stacks of corn bags stand behind a warehouse cyclone fence with a massive metal gate.

Curiously, the production design mixes and matches other modern and ancient aspects. For Coriolanus (Jessika D. Williams) and his soldiers, their uniforms are a peculiar combination of camo trousers and black boots with tops resembling leather armor. Instead of using guns, they fight with swords and shields. Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia (Mari Nelson), and wife, Virgilia (Caro Zeller), wear long light blue dresses similar to ancient stolae, while other Romans tend toward gray trousers and jackets with buckled straps.

This writer caught the opening night of the production, which brought last-minute casting changes, bringing forth performers who proved to be standouts. Mari Nelson took over for Maria Porter as Volumnia, with PCS artistic director Marissa Wolf acknowledging pre-show that Nelson would have her script in hand. Nelson did have to glance at the paper a few times, but she made up for it with Volumnia’s commanding emotions, brandishing the paper like a weapon.

Meanwhile, Caro Zeller played Virgilia and Aufidius (Coriolanus’ rival, of the Volsci tribe) with particular aplomb. As the only cast member with two named roles, she differentiated them excellently. Virgilia was soft-spoken and often stood tearfully behind Volumnia, while Aufidius was loud and sneering and would constantly put her hands on Coriolanus, ignoring his clear discomfort. At one point, Virgilia embraced Coriolanus and Volumnia, but then Zeller shed her sleeves and skirt and emerged as Aufidius, glowering and bug-eyed once again.

Where the play succeeds the most is in its political undertones, which reflect flaws in today’s democracy. Coriolanus may be a war hero, but as a politician, he openly disdains the plebeians whose votes for consul he must court. His patrician opponents ask the same plebeians why they would vote for him, and while they mask their true feelings better, they still treat the commoners with condescension. Patricians and plebeians alike also hurl blame at each other when Coriolanus, in exile, turns traitor and leads the Volsci back to sack Rome.

In this election year, such social commentary is only the cherry on top of the Coriolanus cake, a highlight as Portland Center Stage approaches the end of its season.

Coriolanus plays at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., 503-445-3700, pcs.org/coriolanus. Showtimes vary Wednesday–Sunday, through May 19. $25–$81.

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