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Universal Coriolanus Speaks to the Present Day Hot

Denise Battista
Written by Denise Battista     June 26, 2008    
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Universal Coriolanus Speaks to the Present Day

Photos: Jenny Graham

  • Coriolanus
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Oregon Shakespeare Festival
  • March 26 - November 2, 2008
Acting 4
Costumes 4
Sets 4
Directing 4
Overall 4

Coriolanus opens on the streets of Rome, and in this production the streets are laid with overturned crate-like metal benches toppled onto their sides, and crudely written signs on wooden posts reading things like “We Demand Change,” and “The Wars Eat Us.” The intimate arena stage floor is distressed and tattered, portions torn to reveal metal grating through which light glows or blasts from below. Several hexagonal portions of the grating open, serving as trenches for the Roman forces, and also as the sort of hellish underbelly of this Everyman sociopolitical tragedy. Audience becomes actor as they walk into the theatre through the realistic styrostone Volcian gates (the opposite side of the theatre mirroring with the entrance to Rome), and the intimate space is further confined by a strip of police tape subtly enclosing and thus making complicit we the people.

This is not to say that Coriolanus is an ordinary individual. Quite the contrary, he is a single-handed warrior and hero who helped create the republic he now cannot accept (remember that it was Coriolanus who expelled the last king, thus eliminating Rome’s monarchical society). Coriolanus is the greatest enemy to the enemies of Rome, yet he is also considered the “greatest enemy” of the people because he despises the common man. The result: he becomes an enemy to Rome, and thus his own greatest enemy. And thus there is no place for Coriolanus. Even in exile he is exiled, and without a place to be, he inevitably cannot exist.

Coriolanus is great despite his extreme pride and his inability to bend to the whims of the masses and the customs as well as the transitions of the state. The Everyman aspect is situational, conjuring the social and political woes of times past and times to come, let alone our present day into the breach of contract. Director Laird Williamson sets this production in the “present or near future” so says second year OSF veteran Dan Haley in a post-production talk. Haley carries small and ensemble roles in Coriolanus, as well as this season’s productions of Othello and Our Town. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is set in 5th century BC Rome, but Laird’s production is universal in time and place. Haley explains his own perspective:

“I think it’s universal. There’s similar problems all around the world and I think part of the question that Laird really picks at in this production is that we have a democratic society, so there’s general equality, but there’s still the have and have nots and the idea of who’s destined to rule the other, and if we go back to the issue of the plebeians, are they wise enough to rule themselves? Coriolanus paints them to be the “blind masses.” I think Laird purposely didn’t put (his production) in a certain (time and place)… It’s any superpower.”

In Coriolanus, the people of Rome are suffering from famine. Perhaps Shakespeare hastened inspiration by drawing upon similar events of his own time and place (hearken back to the Midlands Uprising of 1607). The citizens in the play want to be given the corn that they believe the patricians (senatorial aristocracy) are hording. They revolt, turn to their politically savvy tribunes (representatives of the people) for help, and then flip-flop their loyalty toward Coriolanus according to their guided and misguided perspectives. Coriolanus is savvy in combat, not persuasive in conversation. He despises the common man, yet values his reputation and proves his valor time and time again defending Rome. He is equally prideful and modest, and in consequence, serves as his own foil.

Laird’s production is high energy, and dashing Danforth Comins’ portrayal of Coriolanus is heroic, engaging the audience in a love/hate relationship. Comins spends most of his time surrounded by layers of opposition center stage, albeit when he’s not scaling walls or sliding across the floor into the trenches. He rages and beats his chest when called upon to act for and appeal to the people, then hunches over and spits sarcasm when he must engage them. He is a warrior and acts according to this nature, yet in the end delivers a heart wrenching scene as he screams in silence.

The Roman citizens are introduced like a plague invading the theatre up through potholes and down through the audience clenching bats and clubs, wielding guns, and wearing drab hoodies printed with faces that stare into the audience in a clever way that creates the masses out of the dozen or so ensemble actors onstage. While U. Jonathan Toppo as First Citizen leads the citizens in their fury, Sarah Rutan’s ensemble role (Rutan also plays the fur-clad Valeria weighed down by shopping bags in the beginning of the play) represents Coriolanus’ view of the fickle populous, first supporting then opposing him, the change occurring without rhyme or reason. No character in this play is portrayed in a particularly flattering light. The citizens are skittish rats, but are also treated with utter disrespect by Coriolanus in a “what came first” quandary. Tribunes Sicinius (Demetra Pittman seems miscast in the role), and Brutus, well-smugged by Rex Young, are business-clad opportunists, more interested in the latest news feed or email coming through their handhelds or laptops than they are the consequences and rightness of their actions. Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia (Robynn Rodriguez), is an opportunist, as well, feeding off her son’s reputation and glory on the battlefield. Rodriguez’ hair is pulled back in a severe bun, tight mouthed, fierce, cold, imposing and believable as the only human being who can bring Coriolanus to his knees. Mahira Kakkar embodies the teary-eyed “gracious silence” of Virgilia (wife to Coriolanus), further pronouncing Rodriguez’ less than motherly demeanor.

Richard Elmore plays Menenius with pomp. He is a friend to Coriolanus, but also seems an opportunist as he basks in the light of his friend’s glory. When circumstance is in Coriolanus’ favor, Elmore plays his role as smugly as the tribunes and speaks as sarcastically and haughtily to the people as does Coriolanus. When circumstances change and Coriolanus is banished, taking up residence in the enemy camp, Elmore enters the scene inflated, kneeling at the barbed-entrance to the Volscian camp and pleading with Coriolanus to spare Rome with the contrived air of a courtier. When the stone-faced Comins sends Menenius away, Elmore visibly deflates, showing an ounce of vulnerability before denouncing his once friend whom he only moments before called “my son, my son.”

Michael Elich’s role as the Volscian general Aufidius is reminiscent of the film “First Blood” but aside from this association, he is ferociously engaging. He is portrayed as a warrior, a drinker, and—you guessed it—an opportunist. Once he accepts Coriolanus into the Volscian camp, the competitive tension between the two is violently noticeable by Aufidius and by the audience, but Coriolanus remains mortally oblivious.

While other battle scenes in this production are overly-choreographed, Comins’ death scene is swift and cold. He is vulgarly and tragically surrounded and massacred, and in his final moments, briefly portrayed as a martyr. It’s difficult to really like any character in Coriolanus, and even more trying to empathize with the namesake who is lacking in soliloquies, although here, Coriolanus is ultimately and so well-portrayed by Comins as a tragic hero surrounded by fickle opportunists. It’s also difficult to be fully unsympathetic to any character. This production engages because its action is vivid, and we gain insight into and thus sympathy for our tragic hero through the actions of those who surround him. Even so, it seems there’s no other possible ending for Coriolanus, no possible happily ever after, and in this Everyman play, no moral from which to learn, at least not that we’ve figured out just yet. Going back to Dan Haley’s perspective of this production’s time and place and to the universality of this play, the same lack of morality can be applied to similar problems all around the world—past and present in tension. Our only hope is to figure out and learn from the moral before we are eaten alive by the plague.

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