There's a single-minded clarity about Shakespeare's later Roman tragedies, a purity of purpose and theme that marks Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus (the last one is now playing through April 16 at the Lantern Theater) as inherently political, speaking with singular voice to our modern condition.
Of course, Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth fairly reek of politics, albeit in a monarchical and monotheistic setting. And they, too, are expansive creations that capture a dizzying range of human experiences.
The Roman works are focused entirely on political themes arising from Rome's democratic experiment, including the endless tug-of-war between autocratic rule and democratic values.
Set during the first century of the Roman republic, Coriolanus critiques the changeable, thin-skinned Roman populace, who seem unable to take on the responsibility of self-rule and are all too happy to embrace authoritarian leaders.
Lantern Theater artistic director Charles McMahon brings out the play's most urgent themes in his superb, dynamic production of Coriolanus, which opened Wednesday at Lantern's intimate Center City space.
A bold psychological exploration of the relationship between rulers and the ruled that touches on economic inequality and media manipulation, the title character of Coriolanus is a brilliant military leader thrust into the world of politics by his ambitious, domineering mother, Volumnia. Devoted to a somewhat outmoded militaristic code he refuses to abandon, Coriolanus will not pander to the public. Easily manipulated by rumor and gossip, by false news and alternative facts, the masses cut him down.
McMahon gives the play a contemporary setting, using live video, modern weapons, and thunderous sound effects to great effect. He expands the stage, appropriating the seating areas and part of the backstage, imbuing every scene with fluid movement.
The actors are always on the go, making their way around and behind us, across the bare stage, up a set of stairs, and onto the scaffolding. There are no distractions from the action - and from the language, which is generally naturalistic, though never less than poetic.
The performances are superior without exception. Robert Lyons, a graduate of Shakespeare Theatre Company's Academy for Classical Acting, makes his Lantern debut in an explosive turn as Coriolanus. He's well matched by Chris Anthony (Photograph 51) as the soldier's rival, Titus Lartius.
But the evening belonged to Tina Packer (Women of Will), utterly mesmerizing as Volumnia. A stage mother from hell, she's alternately seductive, cloying, vicious, and servile in her attempts to manipulate her son. Packer makes us believe she could single-handedly rule Rome.
Coriolanus. Through April 16 at Lantern Theater Company, 923 Ludlow Street. Tickets: $33-$39 through April 5; $37-$42 after; $15 students; $10 student rush, industry. Information: 215-829-0395, lanterntheater.org.