PROVO — Coriolanus may be William Shakespeare‘s final tragedy. The story, set in ancient Rome, centers around a city plagued with famine, a soldier who rises in politics, and the pride, politics, and relationships that lead to his eventual downfall. The current production by the Grassroots Shakespeare Company is directed by Jessamyn Svensson, and stars a wonderful troupe of actors including Chase Grant as Coriolanus, Carlos Nobleza Posas as Aufidius, Elizabeth Golden as Volumnia, Steven Pond as Menenius, Erin Ellis as Cominius, Lucas Buchanan as Sicinius, and Toria Truax-Jones as Brutus.
The Grassroots Shakespeare Company is a local touring company that tries to mimic the original staging techniques of Shakespeare, such as the current open-air production of Coriolanus put on at the Castle Amphitheatre. Just as in Shakespeare’s day, there are different priced seating options, including a group of “groundlings” that stand throughout the performance immediately in front of the stage. This allows these audience members to connect with the actors in an entertaining and captivating way. A more expensive option is to sit further from the audience, though there are plenty of seats close enough to hear and see all the actors well.
The show is laced with tragedy and death, and the choices of the company included a lot of blood, which was slightly unsettling while very effective. The violence felt raw and emotional but appropriate to the telling of the story. In the beginning the cast members announced that staging and movement choices are led by director Svennsson but are team decisions, which was reflected well in the cohesiveness of the cast. It was not difficult to feel invested in the story, a part of the crowd, and anxious about the outcomes facing the main players.
Having never seen a production of Coriolanus, I was not sure what to expect, but Grassroots has done a fine job of bringing a feeling of fear for the Halloween season mixed with a strong commentary on the pitfalls of politics, picking sides, and manipulating popular opinion for an ulterior motive. Two of the best actors were Truax-Jones as Brutus and Buchanan as Sicinius. Their ability to sway the popular opinion was well played out and slightly unsettling when considering the current political climate. But the entire cast was impressive with their dialogue, timing, and volume. Being true to the time of Shakespeare, there was minimal sets, no microphones, and only essential lighting. Golden as Volumnia was excellent with her dramatic delivery, and her final scene pleading with Coriolanus was very moving. Pond as Menenius plays a character who is often trying to smooth the political waters with a leader who is very unpolished and unable to connect. Posas played an intriguing Aufidius, a character who is willing to fraternize with a known enemy in order to achieve his own political games.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the evening was the pre-show by musicians Gary Argyle, Robert Starks, and Scott Robinson. To my delight, these musicians continued to play background music throughout the production, and the selection of creepy modern music added an underlying feeling of fear that built the ambiance of the show spectacularly.
I confess that as I saw the forecast for the day of the performance, I found myself a little concerned about watching an outdoor Shakespeare tragedy when the temperature was 40 degrees. I was glad I brought a jacket and small blanket as the chill did set in after the sun seat. However, even in the cold the Castle Amphitheatre is a fantastic environment for an evening production of Coriolanus. Located on the campus of the Utah State Hospital, the Castle is in a secluded area nestled up against the mountainside. First time visitors should plan extra time to find the venue, as there is not a lot of signage to help unfamiliar patrons. Additionally, people with mobility challenges should know that there are a lot of stairs to get to the stage, restrooms, and seating.
Halloween theatrical choices by theatre companies are often limited, with productions of Jekyll and Hyde and adaptations of classic horror stories (e.g., Dracula) being common. This Grassroots production of Coriolanus is a fabulous addition to the Utah theatrical season. Grassroots does an excellent job of bringing Shakespeare to life, and a chilling look at how people choose what to believe based on the information that powerful authorities give them.