By NATALIE SAYEWICH
Thursday, April 23, 2015
As East Carolina University seniors prepare to graduate, many of those in the School of Theatre and Dance have been tasked with one final challenge on stage.
The school will present its production of “The Tragedy of Coriolanus,” which continues at ECU’s McGinnis Theatre through Tuesday. The play is one of William Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, a fact which director John Shearin believes is at least partly due to the challenges it presents to its actors, director and staff.
But Shearin also believes that this group of seniors is up to the challenge.
The play tells the story of Caius Maritius (played by senior Alan Chandler) — deemed Coriolanus after his success at the battle of Coriolus — who strives to lead an emerging Roman republic as Consul despite his utter disdain for the common people.
“I really think Alan Chandler has done a really fine job of just finding the way to invest this character with humanity without being false to the Shakespeare,” Shearin said.
It’s a common thread in many of the play’s main characters to not be particularly likeable, which is one of the challenges for the actors, Shearin said.
“I think our actors in those difficult roles have found ways to make those characters sympathetic in places without betraying the nature of the characters as written — their own humanity has found ways to be invested and bring to light elements of the spirit and humane elements of these characters. If played purely as written, they could really be unsympathetic.”
Shearin said he sees a lot of parallels in the story and its characters to today’s society and politicians.
“You have candidates for national office who can basically speak of discounting 47 percent of the populations. You have others who seem to be playing to the masses. It seems to me that this is really current in feeling, this play. You say ‘I’ve seen this guy. I know this person’ in contemporary politics — and I mean on both sides of the aisle.”
The setting chosen for the play is what Shearin refers to as a sort of ancient “Mad Max Beyond Thurderdome” interim period between the old kingdom of Rome and a new, struggling Republic.
“The commoners are rioting because of the shortage of food and grains and they are suspicious of the patricians because they believe the patricians are holding out on them, that they have hidden supplies of grain that they are not releasing,” he said. “There’s this wonderful conflict between external forces on Rome and even internal forces and I thought that visually it would be interesting and reinforcing of the plot to see a Rome that was emerging from ruins.”
Extra attention has been paid to achieve the sort of scale the play demands. The sheer size of the cast is much larger than the majority of ECU’s plays, with 31 members, some of them playing as many as five parts. But the cast size has also allowed several undergraduates to gain valuable stage experience early on.
“This is a particularly rewarding outing because we had so many things going on this semester,” Shearin said. “There are a lot of people who have been able to work in main-stage outings that may not have otherwise been able to, because we do have very stiff competition here. We have a lot of first-timers in it and they’re holding their own. They’re doing a good job.”
Then there are the riot and battle scenes, of which there are several. Shearin brought in faculty member Jill Carlson, a Society of American Fight Directors fight master to organize all the fight scenes.
“She’s finally gotten a play where all her expertise is called on,” Shearin said. “We have virtually every weapon imaginable in this show.”
The logistics of such a large cast, the challenging characters and other factors led Shearin to call it likely the most challenging Shakespeare play he’s done, “and I’ve done a fair number of them now,” he said.
“Some of our seniors are just doing such excellent work in it,” he said. “I’m really just proud to see them go out this way. I just love to work with them and see what they’ve done with a very difficult piece of work.”