Coriolanus is not one of the more extensively performed tragedies of William Shakespeare. Not only is its hero highly problematic, but his blunt speech is nothing like the poetic, philosophizing tone of Richard II or Hamlet. There isn’t even a mesmerizing villain like Iago in Othello.
Nevertheless, the Red Bull Theater Co.., if it hasn’t presented here a play for all ages and places, has certainly found one with resonance for 21st century America. Its production of Coriolanus, which closed a week and a half ago at the Off-Broadway Barrow Street Theater, offers, in the Roman Republic, a scenario that has sounded awfully familiar this past year: income inequality, civil disorder, charges of treason, and a neophyte political candidate with abundant ill-advised words and precious little self-awareness.
Attending a performance only a week and a half after the Presidential election, as rumblings occurred about the Electoral College, I confess to being almost jolted out of my seat by the following passage from the Roman tribune Sicinius Velutus: “Let them assemble,/And on a safer judgment all revoke/Your ignorant election.”
But, just in case the audience still didn’t notice the contemporary application of all of this, director Michael Sexton uses present-day props: a ballot box that is smashed, and a candidate for high office who wears a red hat.
That candidate is Caius Martius, a Roman general who, after a resounding victory over his country’s longtime foes, the Volscians, is given a new honorific—Coriolanus—and the assurance that he will have the inside track on the republic’s highest title: consul.
Dion Johnstone exudes, in equal measure, the vigor that leads men to follow him anywhere in battle and the contempt that leaves him hopelessly unmoored when he is persuaded to try to transfer that charisma to a political environment marked by pandering and manipulation. This soldier is as out of his element in a civilian atmosphere as another one of Shakespeare’s commanders: Othello.
Stephen Spinella and Merritt Janson imbued Sicinius and fellow tribune Junius Brutus with cunning and cowardice. (Their fear was something to behold when Coriolanus, turned on by the citizens that once hailed him, goes over to the once-loathed Volscians in an attempt to destroy the republic.) As one of their adversaries in the Roman Senate, Patrick Page deftly handled the role of Menenius, an old political hand who watches the rabble he once steered now overturn his work of a lifetime.
Though Coriolanus is set in the testosterone-fueled worlds of politics and the military, actresses appear to good advantage in this production—not only because the casting is as often gender- as well as race-neutral, but also because the female cast members bring to the surface the enormous dignity of their characters. Chief among them are Rebecca S’Manga Frank as Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia, and Lisa Harrow as his mother, Volumnia, who precipitates her son’s tragic death by appealing to a deep reserve of mercy that only a parent can reach.
Over the past several years, I’ve come to rely on the Red Bull troupe for throwing a searchlight on the contemporary world with its productions of Jacobean theater. (See my reviews of Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling.) In those plays, such subjects as greed and sexual power relationships came in for sharp treatments that did not stint on the plays’ complications. Now, with the Bard, it took on something of unexpected relevance in this election year: a caustic would-be plutocratic leader interacting with the lower classes.