In this criminally underproduced Shakespearean tragedy, Caius Martius, aka Coriolanus, is an unbeatable Roman general who rises to the empire's highest office on the basis of her—at least in Rebel Kat's all-woman production, which runs through November 18 at 12th Ave Arts—military prowess.
Though she's a natural on the battlefield, she's not the best public speaker, afraid she might be caught "blushing in her acting." She fights all day for Rome, but it's never enough for the other senators, or for the tribunes (sort of like members of congress), who project all their problems onto her. But her public loathes her just as much as she loathes them for a good reason. They're starving, and she won't release reserve corn from the granary for fear of instilling laziness within the population. In response, the tribunes rise up and call for her banishment. A lot.
My brain told me to side with the tribunes representing the people who were being callously starved to death, but because director Emily Penick didn't emphasize their suffering, because they behaved like a mob, and because Nike Imoru's portrayal of Coriolanus was so complex, my sympathies were on the side of the dictator.
Imoru finds humor, elegance, amiable anxiety, and a sort of magnetic relentlessness in her Caius Martius, and so it's hard not to root for her over the shouting tribunes (who were, I should note, played with admirable fire and fury by ensemble members Corinne Magin, Ayo Tushinde, and Kyle Boatwright).
In one of those humorous moments, Imoru can't verbally roll her eyes hard enough when she says the word "voices" in this classic passage, wherein the people choose Coriolanus to be head consul somewhat against her will:
Here come more voices.
Your voices: for your voices I have fought;
Watch'd for your voices; for your voices bear
Of wounds two dozen odd; battles thrice six
I have seen and heard of; for your voices have
Done many things, some less, some more your voices:
Indeed I would be consul.
These are the subtle jabs of a leader whose ample accomplishments go unacknowledged by a largely ungrateful population she's fighting for, people whose "voices" seem to cut her worse than the wounds she endured while defending them.
As with many of Shakespeare's plays, there are tons of great insults and five-star rants for the characters to work with. Imoru doesn't disappoint here either, managing to project more rage in a whisper than most actors do in an overdetermined stage bellow when she lays out semi-hilarious burns like "You souls of geese / That bear the shapes of men, how have you run / From slaves that apes would beat!"
Under a Hillary Clinton presidency, this play, in its casting choices and in Imoru's sympathetic portrait of a tyrannical leader, would endorse Clinton's struggle to break the country's highest glass ceiling while also tacitly critiquing all the hammering she had to do to get there. Though Hillary didn't personally flatten villages and kill entire families like Coriolanus did, Hillary's harsh rhetoric about black kids in the 1990s, her treatment of Barack Obama during the 2008 primaries, her warmongering as secretary of state, and her coziness with Wall Street weren't forgotten by voters in the 2016 election, which contributed—along with sexism and racism and rampant vote suppression, of course—to her downfall. "Strengths by strengths do fail," as Shakespeare has it.
But under Trump, I'm just grateful to see a real smart adaptation of a Shakespeare with some real good actors in this world where American citizens are sipping water from toxic waste dumps and trying not to die all the time.