The Raw Power of ‘Coriolanus: Fight Like a Bitch’

Nike Imoru. Photo by John Ulman Nike Imoru. Photo by John Ulman

I’ve long harbored the deeply unfashionable (for a theatre writer) opinion that Shakespeare should be left to pointy-headed academics and suffering drama majors. The exalted language often goes directly over the heads of almost everyone in a modern audience, no matter how cleverly staged, so producing it smacks of blue-haired snobbery. But Rebel Kat’s production of Coriolanus: Fight like a Bitch at 12th Avenue Arts is the exact opposite of all that.

Coriolanus is a rarely produced gem of a play; unlike the bard’s more familiar standbys, all of the flavor hasn’t been long since chewed out of it. The fierce, all-female cast adds a fresh and engaging dimension—it’s only women, strong warrior women, married to women, fighting women, allying with women, women running all of Rome.

Rome is at war, and Coriolanus is her city’s most badass and celebrated general. She looms large in both her military victories and her cruelty to her fellow citizens, who are starving and demanding the grain she refuses to release to them. “I speak this in hunger for bread, not thirst for revenge!” screams the rabble. “Hang ‘em!” is her careless, despotic response. Thus, the seeds of insurrection are sewn—a situation complicated when Coriolanus’s mother convinces her to make a run for Roman Consul. She does so grudgingly, easily winning the support of the Senate and, through much disingenuous butt-kissing, eventually the people as well. She quickly discovers that surviving society’s expectations is far harder than surviving on a battlefield.

The relentless, driving direction of Emily Penick kept this story of war, loyalty and betrayal tense and exciting, and the performances were masterful (mistressful?), with emphasis on Nike Imoru as the title character. Rough, confident and utterly compelling as the complex Roman general shoved uncomfortably from the glory of war into politics, Imoru gave us a fully realized, three-dimensional human character, brutal and sometimes funny, fiery and tragic. I found myself booing her tyranny, empathizing with her complexity and cheering her victories.

Wendy Robbie (of Twin Peaks and People Under the Stairs fame) is Coriolanus’ clever and pushy mother—kind of the ultimate Mama Rose—and I was impressed by her strong Shakespearean chops and focused performance. Some other compelling performances asserted themselves: Kate Witt as Menenius Agrippa, the harried and suffering political pragmatist trying to hold the Empire together and quell the insurrection of her starving, angry citizens. She was both humorous and fraught, with just enough of a nod to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Colleen Carey brought a strong performance as the murky and clever Aufidius, leader of the rival Volscian army, first Corolianus’s enemy, then reluctant ally. The sexual tension between these two fierce frenemies was palpable.

Also of note was the minimalist staging: an ironic long white runway, usually reserved for vapid supermodels, set the stage for these strong warrior women simply and elegantly, the tone set by relentless, driving techno music between scenes that provided a delicious sense of tension and urgency.

The timing of Rebel Kat’s Corolianus couldn’t have been more astute: It was easy to see the nightmare of our current political climate reflected in its situations and characters. But the breadth and complexity the actors brought to their characters added a dimension of empathy and understanding—dare I say, even likability?—to a cruel and despotic ruler, unqualified and thrust into public life.