Sunday, November 06, 2016


I can't be 100% certain what William Shakespeare would think of the current election season, but, as Director Michael Sexton and the good people of the Red Bull Theater show in their dynamic and impressive production of Coriolanus, he might well think, "Same as it ever was, same as it ever was."

Aaron Krohn, Patrick Page
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Coriolanus is a war hero, running for consul, who just can't and won't play the political game. It's not that he has superior ethics; instead, he is so sure of his own worth that he thinks power should be handed to him. He's an emotionally blind narcissus; he changes his allegiances to suit his needs; he sees "the people" as useful or not-so-useful tools. Sound like anyone who's been in the news lately?

This Coriolanus is performed in modern dress, with little nods to current events. The similarities to today are perhaps over-emphasized--no one would have missed them!--but it doesn't hurt the excellent production.

The production's main strength is a relentless energy that pulls the audience from scene to scene. The full auditorium is used, and we are often amidst protesters or voters or potential violence. Again and again, Sexton goes for visceral emotion, which can be thrilling.

On the other hand, it has a cost. Actors play multiple characters, and it isn't always clear who's who; also, while some performers handle the language beautifully, others enunciate poorly or speak the words but not the meaning. An ideal production would be effective on both big-pictures and micro terms. However, while less than ideal, this Coriolanus is one of the most emotionally rewarding productions of Shakespeare I've seen in a while. (I also love that it's cast across race and gender with a total lack of self-consciousness.)

Dion Johnstone inhabits the role of Coriolanus fully, although a little more attention to clarity would be nice. Stephen Spinella and Merritt Janson are amusing as the conniving tribunes. Matthew Amendt makes a strong frenemy for Coriolanus, though his costume and makeup work against him; he comes across as a punk rocker rather than a general. Most effective is Patrick Page as Coriolanus's friend and advisor; he is the most completely realized person on stage. The rest of the strong cast comprises Lisa Harrow, Rebecca S'Manga Frank, Christina Pumariega, Aaron Krohn, Zachary Fine, Olivia Reis, and Edward O'Blenis.

The scenery and lighting (Brett J. Banakis) and costumes (Asta Bennie Hostetter) are mostly excellent. The fights (Thomas Schall) have a choreographic feel that sells the fake violence. The sound design (Brandon Wolcott) is superb, keeping tensions high and emotions raw without ever being assaultive.

Much remains unchanged since Shakespeare's time. Issues of class and money are as toxic as ever, and too many people are still too easily led by too many lies. On the other hand, we're less violent--Clinton and Trump have not yet dueled--and our leaders have been reduced to human size, for better and for worse. All in all, Coriolanus can't really tell us anything we don't know, but it is a valuable production nevertheless.

Wendy Caster
(5th row; press ticket)

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