Updating timeless class struggle

Review: Director Michael Kahn takes `Coriolanus,' one of Shakespeare's lesser-known works, down a cold, dark road.

January 26, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Shakespeare reveals so little of the characters' inner life in "Coriolanus" that a director can sway an audience's sympathy with his interpretation.

However, at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, Michael Kahn takes a cold, cynical drama and turns the temperature down even farther.

Updating the action to pre-World War II Italy, Kahn's opening scene shows an angry group of working-class protesters bearing placards with such slogans as "Food for the people" and "Free corn now."

You might think you were watching a play by Clifford Odets, instead of Shakespeare's last tragedy.

As the protesters mill about, a stream of corn pours out of a chute in the ceiling.

When patrician Menenius Agrippa (Ted van Griethuysen) enters dressed in a morning suit and brandishing a silver-topped cane, the theme of class struggle is so blatant, the play suddenly takes on shades of Bertolt Brecht.

Then Andrew Long's Caius Martius -- soon to be dubbed "Coriolanus" for his valor in battle near the Volscian capital of Corioles -- enters at the top of the giant metal staircase that dominates designer Walt Spangler's set.

Garbed in his military dress uniform -- designed by Jess Goldstein with an unmistakable fascist flavor -- and with ramrod posture, Long cuts a severe-looking figure. His first words, calling the populace "curs" and "scabs," do nothing to alleviate this impression.

But his arrogant example isn't intended to make the starving workers look good by comparison. "Coriolanus" is a play that vilifies everyone involved in the political process, branding them all manipulative, fickle or foolish (especially Floyd King and Eric Hoffmann as the pathetic tribunes of the people).

It's also a play virtually bereft of introspection or sympathetic characters.

Just about as cold an assessment of human nature as exists in Shakespeare's canon, it is, deservedly, one of his less popular works.

At the same time, when the victorious Coriolanus is urged to seek public office, the coaching he reluctantly receives about how to appeal to the citizenry makes this an intriguing -- though still not compelling -- play to stage in an election year.

The little we know about Long's Coriolanus is this: He's a natural born killer, a man who only knows how to function in war. In this sense, he's not dissimilar from his greatest adversary, the Volscian general, Tullus Aufidius. So perhaps it's not surprising that when the people turn on Coriolanus, he turns to Aufidius, joining forces with his archrival to destroy his own nation, Rome.

Indeed, the scene in which Long's Coriolanus vows allegiance to Keith Hamilton Cobb's swaggering, warrior Aufidius seems almost like a reunion of old friends, as they playfully wrestle and embrace. Whether trying to kill each other or expressing mutual admiration, these two speak the same language.

Besides sharing the traits of blood-thirstiness and pride, they share the seeming virtue of being true to themselves (a questionable virtue when your true nature is egotism). Coriolanus fails at politics because he will not make himself more acceptable to the people.

His chief weakness is that he is a mama's boy, though Kahn does not overstate this relationship.

But, oh, what a mama Coriolanus has! In the production's most powerful performance, Sheila Allen's elegant, aristocratic Volumnia is a born politician, a shrewd power-behind-the-throne who knows what the masses want.

She is also the creepiest character on stage. She revels in her son's battle scars and, after hearing that Coriolanus' young son has torn a butterfly apart with his teeth, joyfully exclaims that he is his father's son.

If Coriolanus is a "lonely dragon," as he calls himself, then Volumnia is the original dragon lady, the kind of mother who must have nursed her son with buckshot.

As played by Elizabeth Long, Coriolanus' wife Virgilia comes the closest of any character to evoking sympathy. She does not rejoice in her husband's bloody heroics but merely fears for his safety.

This meek soul couldn't be a more inappropriate mate for the perpetually combat-ready Coriolanus.

The son bred from this marriage bears his father's proud, war-like stamp, and Kahn emphasizes this by silently bringing the boy out at the end of the play and turning Shakespeare's tragedy into a treatise on the making of a dictator.

If it's true that the people get the leader they deserve, Kahn's "Coriolanus" issues a clear warning that, with a presidential election approaching, it's not just the candidates, but we the people who'd better shape up.

`Coriolanus'

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and 1 p.m. March 8. Through March 12

Tickets: $14-$58

Call: 202-547-1122

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