Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Theatre as Warning: Red Bull Theater’s Coriolanus at the Barrow Street Theatre

The Red Bull Theater’s production of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus at the Barrow Street Theatre is ensemble playing at its best, directed by Michael Sexton.  The small and tight-knit ensemble played early Romans and Volscians of all classes. 

About five centuries before Julius Caesar was stabbed in the Curia, the Roman patricians and warriors and plebeians had defeated their previous king, Tarquin the Proud, and established the Roman Republic.  This was not a republic in which all citizens were equal, but it was a start.  The play’s plebeians of the early republic become a character as a group with a common view.  When the play begins, the plebeians (lower class, working class, what you will) have “tribunes” to represent their interests in the patrician Senate.  Essentially the tribunes can be seen as go-betweens (like your local councilman, congressman, etc.), and can misinterpret or misrepresent (willfully or not) the plebeians to the patricians and vice versa. The plebeians want their fair share of grain (of which the patricians have more than they need).  The patricians don't want to give anything away.  This society is blatantly stratified. 

Caius Marcius is a fine soldier but a socially inept patrician.  Too soon after the Roman army has gotten rid of “Tarquin the Proud,” Caius Marcius behaves with much too much pride, setting himself up for a fall after rising as a military hero and gaining the surname Coriolanus after conquering the Volscian city of Corioli.  His politically ambitious friends and family want him to accept the Consulship of Rome (the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic).  I doubt it will surprise anyone that this does not turn out well 

The splendid cast elucidating the story and the people are:

Dion Johnstone is a powerful and articulate Coriolanus.  Strength and fury emanate from him except when he’s speaking to his mother, wife or son.  He is powerful, passionate, a bit dense, and very arrogant.

Virgilia, Coriolanus, and Volumnia in front, Cominius and Titus Lartius behind.  (Photo By Carol Rosegg)
Lisa Harrow was ruthless as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia.  Her love for him displaced by her own ambition, Volumnia is not an easy character to like, but Harrow makes her three-dimensional.

Patrick Page was engaging but sleazy.  He is just a politician, but his heartbreak at Coriolanus’ rejection of him in the second half of the play is real.  His Menenius Agrippa was a Southern styled good-old boy.  While amusing, this choice seemed rather tired, even trite since everyone else in the play has city or homogeneous accents. Like the production, Mr. Page has political points to make.

Patrick Page as Menenius Agrippa (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Matthew Amendt as Tullus Aufidius did not look like a tough warrior so he had to act it, and he did.  He spent a great deal of time off center, and I enjoyed watching him out of the corner of my eye as he responded — or didn’t — to Coriolanus.  His building fury is only broken by the death of the man he ordered killed, a man as like him as a brother.
The banished Coriolanus and Tullus Aufidius (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Aaron Krohn played a strong Cominius, Coriolanus’ long-time friend and general. Krohn comes into his own as the sensible and sensitive friend to Coriolanus back in Rome.  Zachary Fine was Coriolanus’ fellow soldier and friend Titus Lartius. Both are also transformed to be part of the plebeians of Rome, slipping easily into other speech patterns and beliefs. Fine also plays a sodden member of the Volscian Aufidius’ staff and was charming and funny opening the production’s second half with great hilarity — this should be no surprise from the man who played Crab and Valentine in the Fiasco Theater Company production of Two Gentlemen of Verona at TFANA in 2015 []. 
Titus Lartius, Coriolanus, and Cominius (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
The plebeians are easily manipulated by the two tribunes who are supposed to represent the plebeians but who have agendas of their own.  These two are well played by Stephen Spinella (Sicinius Velutus) and Merritt Janson (Junius Brutus). Sicinius makes me very angry, but Spinella is so good and was honestly physically afraid of Johnstone’s Coriolanus that my anger with him faded, if just for the moment.

Rebecca S’Manga Frank played multiple roles, from Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia who she completely differentiated from angry Roman plebeians calling for Coriolanus’ banishment.

Olivia Reis played Coriolanus’ small son.  Her face was a child’s face until she reappeared as a courtesan in the Volscian camp or a Roman plebeian, when she became an entirely different physical person. 

Edward O’Blenis did excellent work as First Citizen in Rome, an angry man, powerful and skilled at goading his fellow plebeians to revolt.  In the Volscian city of Corioli, he is the lieutenant to Tullus Aufidius. 

Christina Pumariega played a broad range of roles, each better than the last, from the Roman patrician Valeria to an acrimonious plebeian to a bawdy wench in the town of Corioli.

Coriolanus is the story of a man who was not temperamentally suited for public office.  He was a fine solider and general. He knew himself inappropriate to be Consul but allowed those with more ambition than he had push him to accept the honor.  What he may not have seen, since understanding people was not his strong point, was that each friend and relative who urged him on wanted to live in the reflection of a Consul’s power.  That was for themselves, not for him, not for Rome.  Inevitably his unfitness surfaced, his unfiltered mouth insulted every person he did not consider his peer, that is, most of mankind and particularly the plebeian class whose votes (“voice”) he needs to be named Consul.  The incensed plebeians accuse him of treason and want him either executed (by being thrown from the Tarpeian Rock) or banished.  Being banished from the country whose wars he’d fought is a bitter pill.  He goes over to the other side, to fight by the side of his arch enemy Tullus Aufidius, goes to war against Rome and denies his friends and family. 

The final act of murder/execution was harrowing to see and highly effective, played center stage as it was.  And, not surprisingly, the fool who ordered the death of Coriolanus regrets it and is heartbroken but it is too late to mend. 

Does any of this sound familiar?

I am not a purist in Shakespeare: I’m all for cutting, editing, even moving scenes around if it clarifies and moves the story along.  Shakespeare’s storytelling is strong enough to withstand a great deal of messing about.  This streamlined script, though, seemed a tightly strung bow, aimed predictably to show the power that can lie with two manipulative politicians directing the uneducated masses as a weapon against an enemy, not necessarily of the people, but of those two politicians.

I’ve seen the play before, and found it dreadfully appropriate that I saw this production on election night.  

~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, the novel, as opposed to the wonderful play version produced by Bedlam that I swooned over last week.

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