"CORIOLANUS"


By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tina Packer
Founders Theatre
Lenox, MA through July 13, 2001.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton


Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer has restaged her much admired production of "Coriolanus" for the opening of the company's exciting new Founder's Theatre, which is the first performance space to be readied for use at their recently purchased new complex in Lenox. Packer's Bare Bard version of the last of Shakespeare's Roman tragedies fits beautifully on a stage resembling that of the inn courtyard theatres that were precursors to the Globe. It is a stage large enough to impress, but small enough so that 8 or 10 actors can give the impression of a crowd or a platoon. In its present Elizabethan configuration the audience is very much a part of the scene. As you look at the actors from your seat -- all the seats are good seats-- you can see other spectators beyond them, watching and listening just as you are. This sort of theatre encourages the actors to acknowledge the presence of the audience: to address political harangues to us as if we are citizens with a vote or soldiers about to go into battle, to confide asides or share jokes with one of us in a near seat as if we were a dear friend; and to turn their soliloquies into dialogue, with the audience taking on the role of the gods, or of the other self of a character's divided soul. I love this, I cherish the implicit assumption that we are all working through the matter of the play together-- actors, author, audience, investigating characters and codes through a complex action in order to see the matter multidimensionally, . This appeal to the community for active understanding is what thrills me most about live performance. Shakespeare & Company's "Coriolanus", like the 1992 Bare Bard "Julius Caesar", is thrilling. It is a cold hard intellectual thrill, however: in spite of Shakespear & Company's humane approach that invigorates even the meanest of roles and ignites every spark of humor from the ironic clash of mighty opposites, "Coriolanus" remains a play more to be appreciated than enjoyed.

Caius Marcius Coriolanus is a general of Rome, in his youth one of the patriots who threw out the Tarquin kings and reestablished the Roman Republic. In the first act Marcius earns the title Coriolanus by defeating the Volscians at Corioli, taking the city single-handedly in an act of astounding personal bravery, and for this he is nominated for the state's highest office, the Consulship, in act two. His mother, Volumnia, is overjoyed: fame and honors for her son is her life's ambition. Tradition decrees that the man standing for Consul must be confirmed by the common citizens' vote, their "voices". Coriolanus is to request this humbly, showing them the wounds he took in their service. Packer's designer, Rachel Nemec, has supplied a set of short column plinths to elevate nobles leaders or heroes above the common mob and form stage pictures. The actors step up and pose when they orate, or become living statues at some appropriate time, such as when a scene in which their characters do not take part is in fact about those characters, and the idea of that hero or enemy leader looms over the scene. Coriolanus walks modestly with his fellow officers, but it is with the greatest reluctance that he comes down from his pedestal to meet the commoners and get their approval. They have recently gained-- or had restored-- a bit of influence on the patrician government through the appointment of People's Tribunes, and Coriolanus is utterly opposed. The Tribunes tell the people that Coriolanus only feigned respect and service -- once in power he will take away their rights and refuse bread to the starving. The fickle mob rushes off to rescind their confirmation, and instead of flattering and calming them Coriolanus calls them measles, minnows, rabble, and tells the nobles they are fools to encourage the mob to meddle in government. They will destroy the City. The tribunes cry "Treason", and within two scenes Coriolanus has gone from the pinnacle of honor to banishment. By the following act he has joined his old enemy Aufidius and his Volscians and is marching to destroy Rome. The single minded ferocity with which the hero cut down his City's enemies with no more regard for his own pain than theirs is now turned against the land of his birth, and threatens even his own wife, son and mother.

That wise old theatre pro Arthur Miller put the problem very well in his essay "Politics and the art of Acting" in the June 2001 issue of Harper's: "The play without a character we can really root for is in trouble. Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" is an example. It is not often produced, powerful as it is as playwrighting and poetry, no doubt because, as a totally honest picture of ambition in a frightening human being, the closest the play ever gets to love is Coriolanus's subservience to his mother. In short, it is a truthful play without sentimentality, and truthfulness, I'm afraid, doesn't sell a whole lot of tickets or draw votes." That's the only reference to Coriolanus in Miller's examination of the process by which Americans currently select our political leaders. But the playwright certainly implies that a public able to appreciate Shakespeare's play would be a public better equipped to exercise citizenship in a Republic than our TV addicted electorate is today.

In fact, there have always been some people who do root for Coriolanus, believing him a true hero, a superior being too noble to be judged according to the debased standards of commoners . They find him principled as well as brave, a truth teller who simply cannot stoop to lies or flattery, and see in his determination to destroy the city in order to save it from democracy a lesson in leadership. There have been heroic actors who played the part so -- though not Laurence Olivier, who described Coriolanus as "a very straightforward reactionary son of a so and and so" and his own celebrated performance as the product of a good strong voice and tip top physical conditioning. Dan McCleary's Coriolanus is in that line: a splendid brute, with leather lungs and a hide tough enough to not give a damn what lesser beings think of him -- the courage of the actor facing down the audience standing for the character's courage facing down his enemies in battle. McCleary sketches his Coriolanus with broad strokes-- a heavily muscled man who is energetic and nearly joyous when working at his specialty of hand to hand combat, --- the spectacular combat is under the dirction of Ty Skelton-- who is eloquent when defending patrician superiority, testy when out of his field of expertise, vicious when his values are challenged, and tongue tied, almost stupefied, when forced to consider another point of view than the warrior's, which he has been condition to regard as self evident and absolute. Elizabeth Ingram's Volumnia is the ferociously ambitious mother who has created this single minded monster-- Miller's "picture of ambition in a frightening human being" label goes double for Volumnia-- and because she has built the boundaries of her son's mind and set the terms for his love, she can pinpoint his defenses and reduce his assumptions to rubble. She hits every weak point with a mortal blow, and her son is helpless, bereft of honor. Is there a crueler scene anywhere than the one in which Volumnia is welcomed in triumph as Rome's savior, "worth of consuls, senators, patricians, a city full" because she has defeated the greatest enemy, her own son? Ingram's Volumnia towers. What she has done is beyond human, and she is become a monument.

Dennis Krausnick brings out the less pleasant traits in old Menenius, making him a much less sympathetic character than I am used to. Tene Carter, too, plays a Virgilia who baffles our hope of finding somebody we can warm up to. What does this woman feel for her bullheaded husband? With Volumnia eying her every move, does she dare to feel anything? Mark Woolet's Cominius, Samuel Gates' Titus Lartius, Jonathan Epstein's Aufidius, Ty Skelton's Roman Soldier, Michael Toomey's Junius Brutus and Lisa Wolpe's Sicinius Velutus are all excellent characterizations, Wolpe's Sicinius being remarkable during the first two seconds of each of his appearances when one notices that the actor playing him is female. After those two seconds the actor disappears behind the character. It is the same with the other actors transforming into new characters. Costumers Kiki Smith and Gina Loiodice have designed costumes that are distinctive and classifying and that can be whipped on and off in the wink of an eye. One does register the change: actor a who was playing a Roman officer a moment ago is now a Volscian servant. Actor b is now a guard. Packer has the actors set this up from the beginning, announcing their names and roles, and donning the first costume-- the rags of the Roman plebes-- in full view. But whether the change is made on stage or behind, it is designed to enlist the audience's imagination, not to fool us. When actors double, it can mean that instead of a few excellent actors in the leads grabbing all the attention and lesser talents filling in support and background, major talent and charisma may be wrapped in a beggar's rags and speak a two line role as if it were a star part. "Coriolanus" benefits greatly from this equal distribution of strength. The actors portraying the ragged starving citizens are as vivid as the toga draped patrician warriors-- of course they are, they are the same actors-- and the lower class characters' vitality makes the dramatic case for their right to consideration and empowerment. The common people aren't presented sympathetically, that would defy Shakespeare's text. The rabble practically beg to be lied to and manipulated. However, they are as alive as their betters, and it is easier on this stage than it is on the page to see the plebes as having needs and rights as citizens which Coriolanus refuses to recognize. The heroic deeds Coriolanus has done in battle saved them from the threat of death or slavery. But if as Consul he doesn't care whether or not they starve and would deny them their freedoms as a matter of principle, their consent to his rule would be idiocy. When we see them vividly, see them the same way we see the rich and powerful, we are not satisfied that they deserve to be beneath the notice of the Entitled.

In spite of the recent round of rote adulation of the W.W.II Greatest Generation, soldiers are not the the Entitled class in America today. Businessmen are. They are ones credited with general wisdom based on their success in one specialized and aggressive activity, the ones entitled to set the agenda for the people's elected representatives, and fund or starve the nation's art. Presumably they or their heirs are the among Founders who have given Shakespeare & Company the wherewithal to build this beautiful new theatre in which, when the actors hold a mirror up to nature, we may compare the way Shakespeare pictures patricians and plebeians relating in ancient to the way rulers and ruled relate now, and take from that comparison what lessons we can as well as what pleasure we may. The Founders Theatre itself is a triumph, a lean but not mean machine for dreams. An ugly cinder block building that was a cross between a quonset hut and a garage has been wrapped round with an elegant portico and filled with a sort of darkly gleaming crimson canvas circus tent of scaffolding. The scaffolding can be reconfigured into different sorts of stage-audience shapes, but the space as it is now seems almost perfect-- all it lacks is an entranced and participating patron in every one of its 428 comfortable seats.

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