Shakespeare in Clark Park (SCP) provides an adventure every July. Their 12th annual production in the West Philadelphia park’s natural bowl, Coriolanus, is only their second tragedy (after 2007’s Romeo and Juliet). Director Kittson O’Neill uses a new stage configuration and casts all major roles with women, changing only a few pronouns. These choices are daring for any Shakespeare production drawing a large, diverse audience (opening night’s crowd ranged from toddlers to senior citizens, of many ethnicities); for the most part, SCP succeeds.
Back to nature
Rome as depicted in this Coriolanus is a rough, primitive outpost, a refreshing contrast to the near-future apocalyptic version of Lantern Theater’s production last spring. D’Vaughn Agu’s scenic design puts set pieces looking like American settlers’ wooden stockades at either end of a long rectangular playing area. Natalia de la Torre’s rustic costumes use earth tones, and combatants’ weapons are long pikes and broadswords. No white togas and sandals here.
The action unfolds at the bowl’s bottom, allowing tremendous, charging entrances — not only by the 14 main characters, but also including a chorus of nearly 50 community volunteers playing armies and citizens. Live drums accentuate swooping approaches from the hilltops and Jacqueline Holloway’s bold fight sequences.
Location, location, location
This Coriolanus experience is most effective, I discovered the hard way, if one sits on the slopes on either side of the playing area. Opening night, many people sat farther away, toward the bowl’s south end, facing the largest set piece at the north end. They had trouble hearing (the speakers don’t point that way) and seeing (action was far away and blocked by the south end’s set piece, plus some lights shone directly in my eyes). I eventually circled around to the east side, where O’Neill’s staging, Drew Billiau’s lighting, and Rob Kaplowitz’s sound were much clearer.
I suggest ushers guide people toward optimal seating and encourage them to sit closer together. Opening night’s audience had many dead zones behind people with tall chairs, and wasted space between islands of blankets. More than a third of opening night’s audience strained to see and hear at that ill-fated south end.
A defiant warrior
Nevertheless, the timely story of Coriolanus — played with swagger and intensity by Charlotte Northeast, whose petite stature only adds to her defiant warrior persona — shines through this energetic production. Outdoor Shakespeare is not the optimum venue for poetic nuances; this Coriolanus excels in broad strokes and large-scale action. When Coriolanus is banished by the fickle Roman mob, Northeast strides out of the park alone, leaving behind dozens of people just beginning to realize that they may have made a fatal mistake.
Emily Kay Lynn excels as Coriolanus’s nemesis Aufidius, and their sword-clanging fights are harrowing. Judith Lightfoot Clarke makes Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia a powerful force, aided by her status not as an outlier in a male-dominated world, but as a matriarch. When she says “Anger is my meat,” we know she means it. Hannah Gold, Brandi Burgess, and Kimberly Fairbanks are among the professionals leading a strong cast, and together suggest an Amazon society struggling to create a civilization. As we all know — Romans, Elizabethans, modern Americans — it’s not easy.
All the speakers (including some chorus members as Roman citizens) communicate with clarity and integrity, as long as we’re in the right place to hear them well. Sit on the east or west slopes, enjoy Clark Park’s atmosphere (a delightful mix of children, dogs, bicycles, ice-cream trucks, and more) on a summer evening and bask in this daring Coriolanus.