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Shakespeare by the Sea XXIII: "Coriolanus"

Stephen Brown

For 23 years, Jupiter’s Carlin Park has paid tribute to the Bard of Avon with the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival’s venerable Shakespeare by the Sea. What started as a small staging in 1990 has grown to a two-week run at the beautiful Seabreeze Amphitheater, where the sounds of the crashing waves and a salty sea spray are not just part of the scenery but also a welcome addition to the production. For its 23rd installment, which will run July 11-14 and 18-21, PBSF’s production team tapped the seldom-performed tragedy Coriolanus as the play of choice and, as always, added a Shakespeare by the Sea twist.

   “We wanted to do something special, something unique, because I think we earned it,” says Kermit Christman, founder and artistic producing director of the company’s 23-year run. Coriolanus is a first for the PBSF, and although was written more than 400 years ago, the play translates as if it were written today.

Shakespeare by the Sea XXIII - Palm Beach Shakespeare Company - Coriolanus - Carlin Park, Jupiter

   “Coriolanus is a play of power, murder, family struggles, ambition” Christman says. “You don’t have to do anymore research than turn on CNN.” PBSF holds onto these modern sentiments, “lifting it up and kicking it deep into outer space” for Shakespeare by the Sea XXIII, he says. Set against a “naked” stage with little more than an obelisk as a prop, this version of Coriolanus keeps true to Shakespeare’s word but drifts deep into an intergalactic setting—“we call it another world, a world elsewhere,” Christman says.

   Like many of Shakespeare’s works, the tragedy of Coriolanus is steeped in nonfiction intermingled with legend—historical markings of once-great men overcome by the sins of arrogance, pride and name. As Christman puts it, “Coriolanus is basically a very simple story: A man who was a great warrior returns home to find the people have turned against him. They want him dead. He would wish them dead. And the struggle is on for all the power in the world.”

    Based on the Roman general Caius Martius, who held sway over the newly formed Republic in Fifth Century BC, the play opens with a popular revolt as the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, is removed from power. Anger and riots grow over the shortage of grain, with much of the ire directed at Martius—who, like Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake,” had little fealty for plebeian strife: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues/That rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,/makes yourselves scabs?” It's a little more high-brow, but biting nonetheless.

   Popular opinion sways when Martius sacks the Volscian city of Corlio, earning the agnomen—Roman nickname—Coriolanus. Bolstered by this newfound praise, Martius throws his hat into the ring for public office. But the open contempt for “the beast with many heads” (plebeians) does him no favors when running for consul because, as in all Shakespearean tragedies, a scheming conflict boils over by dedicated antagonists: tribunes Brutus and Sicinius. Honor-tinged and banished, Martius’s damaged pride forces him to seek death from his vanquished foe, Volscian commander Tullus Aufidius. Moved, Aufidius embraces Martius as a brother-in-arms, vowing to siege and crush the curs of Rome. Things quickly unwind on the eve of battle, as Martius’ unyielding connection with Rome—his mother, wife and child—help stem the attack, leading to his ultimate demise.

   Now, take this tragic story, wash out the historical underlings of period garb and setting, and put it in space.

Gavin Hamilton

Now picture this scene, in space [Act V, Scene III].

Artwork by Gavin Hamilton, engraved by James Caldwell and restored by Adam Cuerden.

   “We put it into rehearsal over the last few weeks, and I think we have come up with something our audience relies on: Shakespeare, Shakespeare that is strange, Shakespeare that is evocative, but Shakespeare that is always Shakespeare,” Christman says. This demonstrates the greater point of PBSF: to give the community an opportunity to experience live theater in an open, comfortable environment free of charge. Along with cultural partner the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department, PBSF has become a tradition in north Palm Beach County, enlightening more than 100,000 to the Bard since its inception. For many, Shakespeare by the Sea is their first experience with live theater—and for many more, the only live performance they’ll attend all year. It has become a cultural bridge, a throwback to Western drama’s beginnings of ancient Greece and, consequently, the Roman Republic, where performances were for the benefit of the citizenship, not the few who could afford tickets—a point Christman and the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival take great pride in.

   “It's enormously satisfying to see if we can come up with something as equally as winning, evocative and as big as all the long years before,” Christman says about the 23-year run dedicated to the world’s preeminent playwright. “I think for those who have not appreciated Shakespeare or have not appreciated our certain brand of Shakespeare, they should come out and see how genius the plays are. It won’t bite, it won’t hurt you.”

  • The Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare by the Sea XXIII will run for two weeks, July 11-14 and 18-21, at Carlin Park’s Seabreeze Amphitheater.
  • Gates open at 6:30 p.m., with preshow performances by the court jester, Richard Ribuffo, and Coriolanus taking the stage at 8 p.m.
  • Admission is free (with a $5 suggested donation).
  • The audience is encouraged to bring blankets, lawn chairs, picnic baskets (BYOB) and bug spray. Vendors will be on hand serving refreshments. 
  • For more information, visit pbshakespeare.org.
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