Relevant commentary in peculiar setting

THEATER REVIEW

September 19, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- It's difficult to believe that until now, Shakespeare's political tragedy, "Coriolanus," has never been professionally produced in Washington, political hub of the nation.

It can't be for lack of relevance. The play's commentary is timeless. An examination of military nobility vs. the common masses, it just happened to open at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger on the same day charges were dropped against former Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.

Admittedly, when you see this production, you begin to understand why "Coriolanus" is one of Shakespeare's least produced plays. It's hardly his subtlest or most lyrical work. As if to complicate matters, designer Peter Hartwell has come up with a distractingly peculiar concept, updating Rome in the fifth century B.C. to modern India, with the soldiers in combat fatigues.

Nonetheless, the Folger's production, directed by William Gaskill, is worth the trip for its theatrical as well as its political significance. And artistically, it boasts a magnificent performance by Jane White as Coriolanus' mother, Volumnia.

Even more than the title character, Volumnia shapes the course of events. Ms. White's bloodthirsty Volumnia would have made an excellent soldier. "Anger's my meat," she cries out at one point, embracing a marble pillar as if she could crush it. But she also possesses the strategic savvy her son lacks. She manipulates his emotions and leaves little doubt that she could manipulate governments as well.

Her son, on the other hand, is one of history's most odd mama's boys; Bradley Whitford plays him as a snob with the demeanor of a pit bull. Consistency is his only virtue. He's an upper-class Rambo whose repressed anger registers through clenched fists, nervous blinks and repeated cocks of the head. When the masses -- he calls them "curs" -- refuse to honor him for defending them, he sides with the enemy to crush them; it's all the same to him.

Perhaps this intolerance of the lower classes is the reason the designer chose India, one of the world's most stratified societies. Whatever the reason, the play paints an unsympathetic picture of Coriolanus, his mother and the masses.

Believed to be Shakespeare's last tragedy, "Coriolanus" offers an unswerving indictment of politics, war and, by extension, much of human nature. Maybe that's why it isn't performed more often. Or maybe it's just because, "Coriolanus," you're no "Julius Caesar."

"Coriolanus" continues at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger in Washington through Nov. 10; call (202) 546-4000.

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