With Red Bull Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a tragedy based on power, pride, and politics once again has been wrenched from its historical moorings and located in a modern setting that brings us face to face with its contemporary relevance. Such topicality could as easily be conveyed by performing the play in togas and sandals as in camo gear and combat boots, but there’s a definite appeal in seeing ancient Romans looking just like us, especially when themes and characters reflect the breaking news. Probably no other Shakespeare play so closely reflects the turbulence and personalities of the current election season.
It is 493 BC and Caius Martius (Dion Johnstone), an enormously successful military hero and member of the patrician one percent, so to speak, looks disdainfully on Rome’s plebeians, who are protesting because their famine-induced hunger is being ignored by their well-fed leaders. Martius’ recent victory over the Aufidius-led Volscians at Corioles is rewarded by his being selected to succeed Cominius (Aaron Krohn) as consul, Rome’s highest office, and named Coriolanus.
Although his elevation is initially accepted by both patricians and plebeians, Coriolanus finds it a struggle to condescend to the rabble’s level by following the usual protocol when seeking their approval. He’s advised by his controlling mother, Volumnia (Lisa Harrow), and trusted adviser (think campaign manager), Menenius (Patrick Page), to keep his cool when questioned before the people by their manipulative tribunes (think debate moderators), Brutus (Merritt Janson) and Sicinius (Stephen Spinella). However, he allows them to get under his skin, blows his top, and is banished. Driven to seek revenge, Coriolanus allies himself with Aufidius (Matthew Arendt), his mortal enemy and frequent combat opponent, and attacks Rome, where Aufidius eventually goads him into denouncing the citizenry, thereby sealing his fate.
For all its differences from today’s headlines, Coriolanus strikes brilliant sparks of contemporaneity in its depiction of an unpleasant, egotistical, angry, and prideful leader, incapable of self-understanding, and consumed by a drive for power and revenge. Coriolanus is a man whose personality is in direct conflict with the responsibilities of high public office, someone whose temperamental volatility is more of a threat than a solution to political problems in a painfully divided city-state.
Michael Sexton’s direction, while not particularly original in its use of current military and civilian clothing (see the Ralph Fiennes 2011 film for a big-budget version of the same thing), manages the difficult feat of presenting what seems a full-text version with only a dozen actors. Apart from a few principals, everyone plays multiple roles in the colorblind, genderblind ensemble, not always with the greatest who’s who clarity, nor with notable comic skill when doing the humorous bits.
The audience, walking past walls plastered with voting signs, enters through a faux-metal detector into an auditorium painted white (by Brett J. Banakis, who also did the dramatic lighting), with a bare stage resembling a lecture-hall platform. Its large, upstage double-doors will be used for dramatic entrances. The entire space—auditorium and stage—is employed, the pace is rapid, the energy high, the often bloody action abundant (Thomas Schall directed the fights), and the sound design (by Brandon Wolcott) of music and special effects exciting.
Leading the well-spoken company, Dion Johnstone cuts a commandingly convincing figure as the brawny, rage-filled soldier who is nonetheless submissive to his domineering mother, played with dignified power by white-haired New Zealander Lisa Harrow. The always impressive Patrick Page, natty in suit and tie, is the very image of a campaign spinmeister, although more youthfully vigorous than the dialogue suggests, and Aaron Krohn is an effective Cominius, but also a bit young for the part. Disappointingly, Matthew Amendt’s Aufidius looks more like the tattooed, Mohawk-haired, pencil-thin lead singer in a punk rock band than Coriolanus’ awesome battlefield opponent.
Red Bull Theater’s Coriolanus may not be perfect but it couldn’t be timelier. Get out and vote.
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow St., NYC
Through November 20
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).