The Power and the Passion: A Tale of Two Coriolani
by JK Clarke
In the New York theater world, it should come as no great surprise that in this, the unprecedented and extraordinary 2016 election season, there are two productions of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Given last week’s results, the decision by both companies (Shakespeare in the Square/Combative Theater Co. and Red Bull Theater) to produce this lesser-known of Shakespeare’s tragedies was particularly apt, for Coriolanus is the cautionary story of political demagoguery, celebrity and the after-effects of rabid, unhinged Populism.
Like most of the Bard’s works, Coriolanus is subject to interpretation, which is generally influenced by current events. While the play can be viewed as a study of a grand personality gone out of control (as had been the prevailing angle taken in productions in the latter half of the 20th century) it can also be seen as a study of the fickle politics of the masses, the vox populi. So, it’s particularly exciting that these two productions taking place within a few blocks of one another in Greenwich Village (and which end their limited run this weekend) take either approach. What’s more, these wildly disparate productions of the same play, are each successful and fascinating in their own way. If you’re in the mood for politics there’s the Red Bull Theater version; or if it’s bloody war you want, Shakespeare in the Square/Combative Theater Co.’s version might be for you. And if you want both, then both are out there.
Coriolanus — Red Bull Theater
Red Bull Theater’s Coriolanus—directed by Michael Sexton and playing through this weekend at the Barrow Street Theatre—is set in modern times (though the action takes place in early Republic Rome, 493 BCE), with very familiar markers (voting booths, hints of Occupy Wall Street, and contemporary dress). Smartly, Sexton’s production doesn’t seem to choose sides, at least not in the most obvious of ways. There’s not the expected demonization of one party and one figurehead in particular. All are called out, including the masses, who bear an uncanny resemblance to the multitudes who gathered in protest following this year’s election. But, at the same time, as Coriolanus begins to seize power his party is represented not only by red banners draping down the wall (suggestive of a certain Reich), but by an easily identifiable red baseball cap. The central conflict of Coriolanus is of the eponymous war-hero who is elevated to leadership status but, because of that same warrior mentality that captured the masses’ attention, he also refuses to cave to their demands (such as their puzzling insistence on seeing the wounds he received in battle); he simply doesn’t want to be told what to do.
The play’s success is dependent on strong performances from at least two of three central characters: Coriolanus, of course; his mother Volumnia; and Menenius Agrippa, the Roman patrician and old friend attempting to see Coriolanus elevated to Consul. In Red Bull’s production, we are gifted with three strong characters. Dion Johnstone’s Coriolanus has all the aspects of a modern soldier—strong, serious and reasonable, despite a quick, impulsive temper. But he’s a subdued character, championed by an exceptionally strong mother figure in Lisa Harrow’s proud, powerful, loving Volumnia (“You are too absolute!” she implores); and Patrick Page’s outstanding Menenius. Page comes off as James Carville meets Colonel Sanders, an affable older statesman who’s so charming that it’s impossible to find much fault in his Machiavellian maneuvers. And when Coriolanus’s belligerence causes the masses to chase him out of town whereupon he joins forces with his enemy, Matthew Amendt’s complex Tullus Aufidius is the perfect sympathetic foe.
Setting the play in modern times is tricky and couldn’t have been pulled off better without Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s mixed bag of costumes, some requiring quick changeovers, which is admirably achieved. Best of all is the portrayal of the enemy Volscians as wine-swilling, coke-snorting, hipsters, complete with skinny jeans, Doc Martins and eyeliner. The stylings easily highlight the absurdity—and imminent failure—of the butch, camo-fatigued, Coriolanus joining their ranks.
Of special note in this production is Brett J. Banakis’ lighting, which on his sparse but effective set (which incorporates the entirety of the Barrow Street Theater) creates innumerable moods, spaces and emotions. It genially guides us on our ride through Coriolanus’s tumultuous and eventually tragic journey. He’s the wrong man for his people and they’re the wrong people for this man.
Coriolanus. Presented by Red Bull Theater through November 20 at The Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow Street at Seventh Avenue). www.redbulltheater.com
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Coriolanus: From Man to Dragon — Shakespeare in the Square and Combative Theatre Co.
The joint production companies as well as the augmented title of this version of Coriolanus tell us a great deal about the production that lies ahead. Directed by Yuriy Pavlish and adapted by Omri Kadim, it’s a battle-rich performance. In his notes, Pavlish compares Kadim’s innumerable fight sequences to a Sondheim play, where “characters burst into song when words fail to express their passions. In Kadim’s world they fight.” The certainly do. What’s more, the audience is immersed in the battles by being asked to stand through much of the first act. We are frequently herded into a flock in the middle of the performance space as fights rage around us, before being pushed off to the sidelines for more dialog-heavy secnes.
Here Jefferson Reardon’s Coriolanus indeed flips “from man to dragon,” and often at the drop of a hat. And that’s just his downfall. He’s a warrior beyond measure. We see him storming the gates, which are closed down upon his fellow soldiers, and he’s left inside to fight the Volscians—successfully—on his own. Looking like a slim Zach Galifianakis on the set of Gladiator, Reardon is tireless and raging throughout the performance. Mitch McCoy’s fight direction—sometimes in slow motion, sometimes real time—is one of the most extensive pieces of fight choreography I’ve yet to see in a Shakespeare play. At times this was as much movement performance as play.
Kadim and Pavlish’s Coriolanus is unquestionably more cult-of-personality focused than politically oriented. This Coriolanus is larger than life, and the masses are dirty, desperate and needy, not as manipulative as in the Red Bull production. Rather, this is a war drama about a war hero who is manipulated by senators. Menenius (Felix Birdie) plays a lesser role, a friend and adviser who holds little sway over the soldier, not unlike his wife, Virgilia (Brynn Knickle). But here again is a mother figure in Patricia Black’s gripping portrayal of Volumnia who not only loves her son, but is in love with his power and glory. And if he can’t get maintain that power, the mean and manipulative Volumnia is going to snatch it away—we start to see this early on. Black is an impressive, authentically costumed and styled actor who looks like Joan Crawford showed up on the set of I, Claudius (and could rival Livia in viciousness). When rageful Volumnia gives her son that look, everyone in the audience feels it to the bone and is likely to avoid Black on the street should they see her later on.
Set in period costumes (Fan Zhang) with authentic looking swords and shields that take a beating throughout the night and set to the constant (sometimes too constant) drumbeats of music director/drummer Aiden Farrell, the play is a constant surge of energy that makes some necessary dialog rich sections of the play (in which we get to sit again) almost a welcome relief. The fighters are strapped with leather outfits that look like they could be sold at a nearby sex shop as S&M gear, but they fight so heartily we also start to wonder if the deep gouges painted on their flesh are real.
Played well, and this production most certainly is, Coriolanus rolls out in a glorious dramatic arc. From revered warrior to a frustrated man whose lack of impulse control makes him his own worst enemy, this momma’s boy is destined not only for greatness but for failure. All we can do is sit (or sometimes stand) and watch.
Coriolanus: From Man to Dragon. Presented by Shakespeare in the Square and Combative Theatre Co. through November 20 at Italy Time Theatre (238 Bleecker Street at Carmine Street, Greenwich Village, NYC). www.shakespeareinthesquare.com
Photos: Zach Terry