A staccato drum beat. A stone, gray set. The nobles stand a body-length above the people. The people are hungry and shouting for corn. The nobility looks on in disdain.
Coriolanus’ ancient Rome is hungry for a hero. It is up to her leaders to rise to the occasion.
So, begins William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” the first offering of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s latest repertory series. This production of “Coriolanus” is directed by David Muse, a Washington-based director who trained at the knee of STC’s famed artistic director Michael Khan. Muse is now artistic director at another exceptional D.C. playhouse, the Studio Theatre.
The second part of the repertory is Friedrich Schiller’s “Wallenstein” directed by Muse’s former boss and mentor, Khan.
Thus, this combo, which is billed as a theatrical investigation of the role of hero versus traitor in the plays, has an added a level of tension as the mentor’s production stands in direct contrast with the mentee’s work.
In Muse’s production, Caius Martius, later Coriolanus, is played by the deep-throated Patrick Page. He is a brash, rich Roman hero, devoted to his family, widely successful as a military leader. He is also utterly disdainful of the plebeian class. His disgust with the lower classes is perhaps so remarkable to our modern political sensibilities because it is unabashed and honest.
When Caius Martius returns victorious from a battle with the neighboring tribe, he is, once again, a warrior hero. To show their gratitude for his actions on the battle field, he is renamed Coriolanus for his victory.
The real intrigue begins once Coriolanus is renamed and told to run for office. The military hero is forced to make himself humble before the people and ask for their votes. He does this, rather grudgingly. Working against him are “the tribunes of the people” Junius Brutus (Phillip Goodwin) and Sicinius Velutus (Derrick Lee Weeden).
Muse has specially staged the conversations between the tribunes. The lights go down, the actors’ mic volumes go up, and they are lit from overhead. It is a decidedly creepy conceit the first few times it is employed. By the second act, though, it slips some into farce.
Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus are, essentially, the modern equivalent of the political operative. They pry and dig into Coriolanus’ past to find information and to use the hero’s own words against him. Eventually, they strike the right cord with the plebeians who had elevated Coriolanus, turning against the military leader. The two spin doctors’ nefarious plot works and Coriolanus is run out of town, though hungry for revenge.
At this point, Coriolanus decides to aid Rome’s enemy, turning him from Rome’s great hero into her greatest traitor.
Ultimately, Shakespeare’s play, and Muses’s production, wrestles with the false dichotomy of society’s setup between the “hero” and the “traitor.” Ultimately, each major character in this production is a great hero and the worst traitor. Coriolanus, for example, heroically fights to defeat a military enemy, even while he believes the plebeians are worthless. The tribunes employ some rather impressive political maneuvering to ensure that people continue to have a voice in their government, while they also leave Rome open to a hostile attack by her enemies.
Six months after the presidential and general election, and in the midst of Washington, D.C.’s special election season, “Coriolanus” is an extraordinarily astute reflection on the modern political landscape.
Also, even though the world Muse and his actors create is a dark, bloody, political one, and one dominated by men, there is one incredibly powerful woman in the mix.
Volumnia is Coriolanus’ mother and does not suffer foolish men or whimpering women. She is played with a certain explosive finesse by Diane L’Aquila and is no one you’d like to have real emotions around. Still, her son loves and respects her.
She is his only true adviser in this world of political men. She is, in the end, the first person who can reach her son through his haze of vengefulness.
This is not one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, but it is one of the most political, and it feels incredibly modern. It also was adapted into a feature film in 2011 by Ralph Fiennes. That, and the current STC run, provides this relatively obscure play with exposure it doesn’t typically get.
And against a backdrop of America’s great political city, and against the reality of our nation’s economic uncertainty and now too-familiar moments of collective terror, the audience can’t help but recognize some of our own on the stage. Perhaps, even for a moment, each of us will relate to nearly every character on stage.
The naked ambition of Coriolanus, his mother, the tribunes and, even Coriolanus’ young son is, at times, uncomfortable to watch, though the discomfort contributes to a wildly engaging and entertaining night at the theater.
This is not a perfect production, but it is completely appropriate to this time and this place.