Shakespeare in Clark Park enlists local residents to go to war

 Brandi Burgess (left), playing a Volscian lieutenant, and Alexandra Palting, playing a Roman soldier, rehearse their battle scene for Shakespeare in Clark Park's production of Coriolanus. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Brandi Burgess (left), playing a Volscian lieutenant, and Alexandra Palting, playing a Roman soldier, rehearse their battle scene for Shakespeare in Clark Park's production of Coriolanus. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

This week, Clark Park in West Philadelphia will host its annual free, outdoor performance of a Shakespeare play.  This year the play is an obscure one – “Coriolanus,” about a brutal warrior ‘s unexpected rise into Roman politics, and his downfall by the hands of its citizens.

But in this production, the “he” is a “she.” The all-female cast takes on the very masculine, military-oriented story with requisite rage and malice.

“I thought it was our turn to have fun with swords,” said director Kittson O’Neill, who is also the artistic director of Shakespeare in Clark Park.

More importantly, she wanted to dangle gender stereotypes in the air.

“At one point in the story, Coriolanus decides to invade a city with the likelihood that he is going to kill his wife, mother, and his own child,” O’Neill pointed out. “Which is terrible. But I think there’s even more weight to it when we know that it’s a mother going to kill her own daughter.”

The action of “Coriolanus” is full-contact; the women warriors fight, scream battle cries, and tackle each other into the dirt of Clark Park.

They also lead armies.

chorusThe citizen chorus prepare to send Coriolanus into exile. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

If you’ve ever read the script of Coriolanus — which, to be honest, few people have — it calls for a citizen chorus of about five actors.

For this production, there are 50. That’s in addition to the 14 professional actors playing the principle roles. For a few years now, Shakespeare in Clark Park has been wrangling large casts of people of various ages, backgrounds, and skill levels to fill the park with sound and fury. Many have had no theater training before volunteering for this show.

“It’s tricky to have a big group of people. When you tell them to get mad a loud, they get really loud,” said O’Niell, who has to reign them in at times so the principle characters don’t get drowned out.

“Members of our community chorus bring veracity and an honesty to the process,” she said. “We can certainly simulate that with actors. Good actors can pretend anything. But I think there’s something really special about watching your neighbors do the work of bringing a story to you.”

One of the members of the citizen’s chorus is Cliff Schwinger, 62, a structural engineer from Cheltenham. Not only did he have no previous experience as a performer before coming to Shakespeare in Clark Park, he had very little experience attending theater.

“As an engineer I usually just deal with other engineers all day. I had no idea there are all these parallel universes of theater and all these wonderful people,” he said. “It’s really expanded my horizons.”

Shakespeare’s plays are well-crafted and its themes have a timeless quality to them — that’s why they can seem like they can be adapted to any moment in history; including – intentionally or not – this one.

The citizen’s chorus performs as both an army and a popular uprising to take down their political leaders. It’s all fun and games, but when you are angrily shouting with a bunch of other people in a public park, even make-believe starts to feel real.

“It’s about the citizens and leadership and how to get together and not let what’s happening in the zeitgeist take over what your voice is,” said Lauren Ryder, a chorus members who normally works in the city’s Department of Health. “It’s about how to stand up for what you think is right.”

“Coriolanus” will be performed in Clark Park this week only, Wednesday through Sunday.

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