by William Shakespeare
Actor’s Shakespeare Project
Arts at the Armory, Somerville, MA
March 12-April 5, 2009
Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Benjamin Evett, Noah Tuleja. Photo: Stratton McCrady.
It’s hard not to get excited about a play that begins with a riot and ends with a title character literally ripped limb from limb by an avenging crowd. Yet Shakespeare's last tragedy, Coriolanus, remains on the margins of his works. In a theatrical universe populated by the inimitable Antony and Cleopatra (not to mention two Caesars), who's even heard of the lesser known chapter of Roman history that features Coriolanus? It is heartening, then, to see an engrossing and sometimes thrilling production mounted by the Actor's Shakespeare Project as the inaugural event at Arts at the Armory in Somerville, MA. While Shakespeare begins his play with an uprising, on April 3rd the ASP performance was preceded by a dedication ceremony led by Joseph A. Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville. This dedication, along with a substantial series of lectures, discussions, and receptions associated with Coriolanus, makes clear that this company not only chooses daring repertory but also makes education a central part of its charge to entertain.
Of course once the play began there was no trace of pomp or circumstance. ASP’s Coriolanus was all haste, darkness, and ominous drums in the beautiful balconied performance space. Workers appeared with hammers, wrenches, and other instruments of industry, confirming the distinctly depression-era feel of the production. Projections of posters featuring the I.W.W (International Workers of the World), Soviet workers (not to mention a tank and a jet), and the tantalizing slogan “Resist” were suggestive and visually compelling, even if the analogy between Roman plebeians and 1930s laborers (and the advent of fascism and communism) didn’t quite work. Immediately persuasive, however, was the cacophony of riot, provided by percussion designer Stephen Serwacki, formerly of the cast of STOMP. Adding to the percussive flair of the production was the explosive movement of choreographer Karen Krolak’s blend of capoeira and other martial arts. This was the kind of crowd most of us can sympathize with—vulnerable to economic vicissitude, skeptical of appeals to nationalism, incendiary in the face of wrong-doing, but easily cowed by figures of authority.
Into this chaos emerges Ron Goldman’s elegant and urbane Menenius Agrippa, the velvet tongue of a state ready to wield its iron fist against its enemies or its own people. His rhetoric is razor sharp in exchanges with the people and as he spars with the tribunes, Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Noah Tuleja’s aptly slippery Brutus and Velutus, who magnificently engineer the downfall of Coriolanus. Yet prior to his failed bid for the office of consul, Coriolanus is the iron fist and Benjamin Evett, artistic director and founder of the ASP and often director of its productions, roared onto stage as the scourge of the city. Whether deriding the lowly and shaming them into battle or terrifying (when not slaughtering) the enemies of mother Rome, Coriolanus is unrelenting throughout: therein lies the tragedy.
Unable, as Cordelia puts in King Lear, to heave his heart into his mouth, Coriolanus refuses to play the politician. Sure, he’s “honorable” in some sense, but our admiration of his disdain for the political must be tempered by the knowledge that his disdain extends from politics to the common people and from there to nearly all other human beings. Coriolanus has only one venue of excellence: battle. When he’s not killing—and he is magnetic and charismatic in war—what is he? Coriolanus is a conundrum who offers actors a fantastic set of challenges. How to balance well-nigh apocalyptic fury with a more challenging range of emotions? Evett, too, was magnetic in battles, master of the curse and the rant, but in the smaller, quieter moments his performance drifted. When Coriolanus, in the wake of banishment, becomes “a man of nothing” should he seem like the Coriolanus of old or is some new tone demanded by this difficult and ambiguous role? Perhaps so. His family scenes were strong enough (in spite of Susannah Melone’s largely forgettable Virgilia) but largely as a result of the brilliant Bobbie Steinbach as his mother Volumnia.
The great revelation—and the show-stealer in this Coriolanus—was Volumnia. This is in large part due to the way the transcendent Steinbach brings to life Shakespeare’s captivating portrait of the great she-wolf of Rome who often can’t distinguish between her son’s valor and her own martial urges. The flirtation with incest (“If my son were my husband” she conjectures at one point) may in some respect explain Coriolanus’s downfall, but in truth Volumnia wants to be her son, not bed him. Like the general Coriolanus was, Steinbach had merely to walk on stage in order to take command. The only figure more frightening than Coriolanus is Volumnia, and the only thing more frightening than Volumnia cursing and shaming (the people of Rome or her own son) was Volumnia kneeling and begging. Having betrayed his people and nearly destroyed them with the help of the army of Volscians to which he defected, Coriolanus weeps like a babe when faced with his mother’s potent mix of wrath, scorn, need and self-abnegation. As the peace-making Coriolanus returns to the Volscians, he is betrayed (again) by his own political ineptitude as Volumnia returns as savior to a welcoming Rome, smartly clad with a fox stole, both fox heads dangling downwards.
Coriolanus lets no one off the hook. As the frenzied din of battle or politics or economics (is there any real difference among these?) so persuasively created by this production fades, we find solace in neither heroes nor the commons. All victories are suspect and all futures uncertain and less than hopeful. A fitting play, it seems, for Shakespeare’s moment and our own.