Shakespeare Theater Company CoriolanusBy Bob Ashby • Apr 12th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Shakespeare Theater Company: (Info) (Web)
Sidney Harman Hall, Washington DC
Through June 2nd
3:00 with one intermission
$55-$105 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed April 11th, 2013
In repertory with Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein, the Shakespeare Theater Company is presenting Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, both productions being focused on powerful military men who are both heroes and traitors. In Coriolanus, the title character’s heroism, treason, and ultimate tragedy are played out in the context of a stark conflict between his patrician class, anxious to maintain control of the Roman polity, and the plebians, demanding a voice in affairs of state and attention to what nowadays would be called food security.
As Coriolanus, Patrick Page, wielding a rough-edged, resonant, commanding baritone voice and dominating physicality, demonstrates first a superb “follow me” style of military leadership, caring more for the morale of his men than his own physical safety. Returning home after a successful war, he has a far weaker grasp on the subtleties of political power. He is firmly convinced of the rightness — indeed, inevitability — of upper class rule, and equally, unthinkingly, convinced of the unfitness of the common people and their politicians for any significant role in government. No hypocrite, he makes no attempt to disguise his negative view of the lower orders, in terms that make Mitt Romney’s disdain for the 47 percent seem mild by comparison. His patriotism and contempt are reminiscent of the charge opponents made against Charles DeGaulle — that he loved France and hated Frenchmen.
One of the strengths of Page’s portrayal is that his Coriolanus is not simply arrogant. Indeed, at least part of his inability to relate to people outside his own circle is pure discomfort. Watching Page shrink into his plain white costume as Coriolanus seeks approval from the people for his appointment as Consul is to see a man whose character includes a kind of shyness and naïvety as well as pride. His anger at the plebes and their leaders stems, at least in part, from resentment that he is being forced to do things he’s not good at.
Another key to Coriolanus’ character is his uncomfortably close tie to his overpowering mother, Volumnia, played by the dynamic Diane D’Aquila. Coriolanus cannot say no to her, at least to her face, even when acceding to her wishes is contrary to his nature or his interests. He becomes almost submissive in her interactions with her, his posture sometimes being that of a boy giving in to his mother’s more powerful voice and spirit. With her bloodthirsty, militaristic “old Roman” virtues that she passes on to her young grandson (Hunter Zane, who has few lines but a stunning bit of business near the end of the show), and a commanding voice every bit equal to her son’s, D’Aquila’s Volumnia is one of Shakespeare’s most frightening female characters, beside whom Lady Macbeth seems relatively peaceful. In one of the Shakespeare Theater’s typically excellent dramaturgical articles, Kenneth Adelman draws parallels to powerful mothers in American politics, notably FDR’s mother Sara.
Coriolanus’ proper Roman wife (Aaryn Kopp) is far less bellicose than her husband and mother-in-law and no emotional match for either. His mother aside, Coriolanus finds the closest thing to a kindred spirit in his enemy and sometime ally, the Volscian General Aufidius (Reginald Andre Jackson). Having engaged Aufidius in hand-to-hand combat, Coriolanus feels a deeper emotional tie to him — even though one of hatred — than to any other character, a feeling returned by Aufidius, particularly in an explicitly homoerotic greeting he gives Coriolanus when the exiled Roman turns up in the Volscian camp. The relationship between the two doesn’t quite take off, however, Jackson’s performance being flatter and less passionate than one might hope for.
The plebians are represented by a versatile ensemble who, in addition to portraying soldiers and hungry, rebellious citizens, act as on-stage stage hands, moving set dressing pieces, drums, and lights. They are the working class, functionally in the production as well as for purposes of the script. Their leaders are the tribunes Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus (Phillip Goodwin and Derrick Lee Weeden), a pair of manipulative politicians of a type recognizable in any age. At times comic in their conspiratorial maneuvers, they are ultimately sinister and dangerous to the Roman state. Director David Muse effectively arranges to have a lighting change and reverb-enhanced sound reinforcement for their scenes of plotting.
Muse contends that his production isn’t intended to take sides between the patricians and the plebians, but the play can’t help itself. While some members of the ensemble have individual lines — it isn’t a chorus — the emotional weight of the production, and of the script, is with the patricians. They are the people whose struggles, virtues, faults, and tragedies are the play’s focus. The common people act collectively as a foil of the patrician characters, but they do not occupy the play’s central territory. Coriolanus and other patricians may have large, even ultimately fatal, flaws, but they are not fools or gullible followers like the play’s plebians.
Blythe R.D. Quinlan’s set is a tall, enveloping structure made to look like concrete, inspired, Muse notes, by brutalist architecture (a type of building design popular in the 1970s, locally exemplified by the FBI building), only too appropriate given the brutality of the story. Panels move to uncover upper level niches that sometimes are used for upper class characters looking down on the plebians; at another point members of the ensemble hold follow spots used to illuminate characters in the main playing area. There is a wide back entrance that, when opened, is sometimes filled with the fog of war when, for example, Coriolanus leads an attack on an enemy city in the first act. The overall effect is both functional and consistent with the emotional tone of the story.
Murell Horton’s costume design is not set in any one period. Muse describes the look as “swords and suits.” Upper class characters typically wear suits with sashes or vaguely modern-style military uniforms; lower class characters, when not appearing in armor as soldiers, are typically draped in simple, generic outfits suggestive of their working class status. For the most part, the color palate is subdued. This is not a production that feasts on bright primary colors.
The cast beats the drums of war, quite literally, as ensemble members bring drums frequently onto stage to herald the latest military venture. The pervasive percussion makes its point, though it becomes annoyingly repetitious after a while. In other respects, Mark Bennett’s sound design is relatively minimalist.
This is a play having a number of interesting characters none of whom, despite, in some cases, admirable characteristics (e.g., Coriolanus’ honesty and physical courage), can be said to be truly likeable. It is, on the other hand, a play of ideas to a greater extent than many other Shakespeare scripts, particularly political ideas concerning how a society deals with stratification and inequality. In the first act, for example, Menenius (Robert Sicular), a senator/elder statesman who has been a mentor to Coriolanus, offers an organic analogy to how Roman society is structured. The upper class, he says, is the belly that takes in resources and distributes them to the periphery of the body, such as a plebian who is like a toe. As patently obvious an ideological justification of the position of the patricians as trickle-down economics is of the position of the modern upper class, Menenius’ speech sets the stage for the implicit debate that follows throughout the play. While full of strong acting and good technical theater, the production gives the audience ample opportunity to think about issues that continue to trouble modern societies.
(Editor’s Note: For more about Coriolanus, see the STC’s web site articles at Asides)
Photos by Scott Suchman
- Ensemble: John Bambery
- Ensemble: Jeffrey Baumgartner
- Roman Senator/Valeria: Lise Bruneau
- Ensemble: Andrew Criss
- Volumnia: Diane D’Aquila
- Ensemble: Philip Dickerson
- Lartius/Volscian: Nick Dillenburg
- Ensemble: Avery Glymph
- Brutus: Philip Goodwin
- Ensemble: Chris Hietikko
- Aufidius/Roman Senator: Reginald Andre Jackson
- Ensemble: Jacqui Jarrold
- Virgilia: Aaryn Kopp
- Ensemble: Michael Leicht
- Ensemble: Joe Mallon
- Coriolanus: Patrick Page
- Ensemble: Glen Pannell
- Cominius/Volscian Lord: Steve Pickering
- Ensemble: Max Reinhardsen
- Ensemble: Brian Russell
- Roman Senator/Volscian Lord: Michael Santo
- Menenius: Robert Sicular
- Ensemble: Jjana Valentiner
- Sicinius: Derrick Lee Weeden
- Ensemble: Jaysen Wright
- Young Martius: Hunter Zane
Direction and Design
- Director (Coriolanus): David Muse
- Set Designer: Blythe R.D. Quinlan
- Costume Designer: Murell Horton
- Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough
- Composer/Sound Designer): Mark Bennett
- New York Casting: Binder Casting; Jay Binder, CSA/Jack Bowdan, CSA
- Resident Casting Director: Daniel Neville-Rehbehn
- Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
- Voice and Text Coach: Ellen O’Brien
- Literary Associate: Drew Lichtenberg
- Assistant Director (Coriolanus): Jenny Lord
- Directorial Assistant: Robert Lutfy
- Production Stage Manager: Bret Torbeck
- Stage Manager: Joseph Smelser
- Assistant Stage Manager: Hannah R. O’Neil
Disclaimer: Shakespeare Theater Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9350.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.