Saturday, March 21, 2009

A broken Coriolanus

The shattered monument to Constantine in Rome.

With a text like Coriolanus, the Actors' Shakespeare Project is working at an interesting advantage to its critics: it's clear from the notices that none of its reviewers has ever seen a decent production before, or in some cases any production before (even I've only seen five versions). So the tendency is to give more credit to the production than is actually due - although to be fair, people can tell the play is rarely done for some very good reasons. It requires a large ensemble that can bring off convincing battle scenes, with all that means in terms of costume and set; what's more, its leads are very difficult to cast - and even when these obstacles are surmounted, unfortunately it's also true the play's central figures are just not that sympathetic.

I wouldn't say that the Actors' Shakespeare Project is well-positioned to deal with any of those challenges; the troupe doesn't have an obvious Coriolanus or Volumnia in its company, nor a large resident ensemble, and of course leads a gypsy existence from one improvised venue to another, so it's unable to bring a panoply of physical resources to the play's realization. But despite all that, the group has persevered, and thus the puzzled-but-positive response to the production; like Samuel Johnson's dog on its hind legs, this Coriolanus may be not be done well, but we're surprised to find it done at all. And a certain collegiate conceit seems to have attached itself to the group, and I think is indulged with pleasure on all sides: ASP tears through the canon at an astounding clip, whether or not they've got the actors or resources to match the play they're doing, and the press always applauds - in a way, the group apes "gonzo" modes of undergraduate thought and experience (unsurprisingly, many of its actors are teachers in the local academy). Indeed, their unconscious re-enactment of freshman-dorm drama may be the real source of their popularity: they take us all back, only this time with our professors onstage, and sure 'nuff they're better than we ever were.

If all this sounds cruel, let me say I'm really writing more in sorrow than in anger; I want ASP to get better, to develop, to build. I like them for some reason, even though they irritate me, as when I recall that this is actually their fifth season and yet they seem precisely where they were at their first opening: some good ideas, some thoughtful line readings, and some interesting DYI grappling with the space they've selected this time; and then all sorts of raggedy edges and let's-pretend-we-pulled-that-off moments. They still behave like a clique, but they're funded like a theatre company - and you can feel the rest of the theatre scene sort of ceding Shakespeare to them, which is perhaps what's most frustrating about the situation, as they don't nearly do him justice.

Of course the Boston audience is so ignorant of how great Shakespeare can be that it's not hard to understand the popularity of the troupe. And after all, they're not pretentiously antiseptic like the ART, to which they were at first seen as a shaggy, but still Harvard-branded, antidote. ASP is accessible, somewhat hip, slightly cool in a grungy way - and yes, in their productions something of the play, or at least its conceptual skeleton, always comes over. I also get the idea from some ASP fans that they imagine the troupe's postmodern-troubadour style roughly corresponds to how Shakespeare's plays were done originally, which is almost certainly a mistake in the case of Coriolanus; lefty academics routinely leave out the fact that Shakespeare was eventually part of the King's Men, with more resources (including, yes, an indoor theatre) than just about anyone; their analogue today would not be the Living Theatre but a White House-sponsored company performing on the mainstage of the Kennedy Center.

Which brings us back to politics - and Coriolanus, which is famously Shakespeare's most political play. It's unique in the canon in other ways, too; it's the bard's last tragedy (if you don't count the tortured fragment that is Timon), but it feels nothing like a culmination and something like a U-turn, as with it the Bard seems to abandon his own methods. In Coriolanus, Shakespeare strips out most of the paired narratives and cross-plots that give breadth and depth to Hamlet and Lear, and suppresses the imagery that flickers like lightning through Macbeth; he even forsakes the soliloquy, from which he conjured the depths of both Iago and Othello (Coriolanus gets one or two short solos, but all lack introspection, and nobody else looks inward, either).

To some, the play therefore lacks personality and poetry; what it has instead is a corruscating irony, and a muscular form. Like its hero, it's a kind of experiment in pure externality, an homage to the utterly public tragedies of the ancients, in which the essence of man was embedded in action, not thought. And perhaps as a result, Shakespeare hews (for once) to something like the Aristotelian model of tragedy: he posits, almost simplistically, a hero with a major flaw that brings him down: Coriolanus is Rome's greatest soldier (and savior), who simply cannot humble himself in order to gain his "rightful" political power - instead he insults those he would lead, and his arrogance brings ruin, and even death, down upon his head. But the simplicity of that arc belies the many ironies of both the play's plot and its central mystery, which turns out to be (in another nod to Aristotle) literally Oedipal: Coriolanus's tragic flaw and public downfall are the result of his private dependence on his mother.

And it's at this crux - the embodiment of private essence in public act - that ASP stumbles. The troupe doesn't seem to realize that to make any artistic sense, Coriolanus's personality must be framed in a palpable sense of glory; if he's not a dazzling rock star, he seems merely delusional, and there's no tragedy. Indeed, as he has no interiority, his tragic climax cannot be the transforming self-awareness that sears Othello and Lear and Hamlet; it can only be his apprehension of his own destruction, his Lucifer-like fall from the glitter of grace. But this is precisely the kind of theatrical effect which the troupe's rag-tag aesthetic perforce excludes. And compounding this problem of style is the simple fact that Benjamin Evett, talented actor that he is, lacks the physical glamour to pull off a golden boy like Caius Martius (Coriolanus's given name, which he rather pointedly shares with the god of war). Evett instead tries to limn the character's childishness and devotion to discipline, but none of this really works without that gilded outer shell.

Coriolanus (Evett) clashes with his arch enemy Aufidius (Ted Hewlett).

And much of the rest of the play doesn't work, either. Evett's Coriolanus simply isn't imposing enough to sew the seeds of envy in others, and if he doesn't seem invincible at some level, the play's other major role becomes suddenly complicated - in short, if Coriolanus is not a kind of god, then his mother comes off as psychotic.

Or she would come off as psychotic, if Bobbie Steinbach weren't playing her as yet another feisty, pint-sized spitfire. Evett may be somewhat disappointing, but Steinbach's actually irritating. Volumnia is Shakespeare's most intensive treatment of a mother, and boy, is she ever a mother. She longs for her boy to be wounded, or even killed (for the greater of glory of his - and not coincidentally her - name); in her very first line she unconsciously muses on what it would be like for her son to share her bed, and things only get more fucked-up from there: by withholding all affection except on terms of military success, she has simultaneously masculinized yet infantilized her son, and tellingly has an almost-erotic relationship to his wounds (hence he cannot bear to show them to the public). She's a nightmare version of the founding Roman she-wolf, hanging leech-like from her offspring, and her very name lets you know she's an enormous void, able to devour everything in her path, military heroes included. Indeed, Volumnia achieves her apotheosis only by bringing about her son's death (by which time she's already got her claws on her grandson). It's a wild characterization that's constantly skirting the edge of satire; still, you'd think Steinbach could come up with more than drawing herself up with dignity and begging the audience for laughs (which they're happy to give her). To be fair, she does get down to business in her climactic scene, which works, but only far more superficially than it could work if she'd built up a twisted foundation for this monstrous matriarch.

Not that any one else is doing much character work, either. Perhaps taking a tip from that previously mentioned lack of soliloquy, director Robert Walsh seems to have directed everything externally, as well - as if the play were actually about its battles, rather than their meaning. Thus the character of Aufidius (Ted Hewlett), the military nemesis of Coriolanus, is basically a blank, and the tribunes who bring their general down (Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Noah Tuleja) are jealous stick figures (when the key to their characters is their sense of pique and wounded pride- they're as outraged by Coriolanus as he is by them). There's some better work around the edges of the production; Robert Najarian sketches a little feeling into Cominius, and Susannah Melone and (particularly) Hannah Husband strike some sparks as Coriolanus's wife and friend. Perhaps the most accomplished performance comes from Ron Goldman as Menenius, basically because Goldman's vocal and rhetorical skills are simply stronger than anyone else's in the company.

Much of the local press comment has revolved around the production's solution, or near-solution, to the problem of the play's epic violence. Director Walsh is widely known as a fight director (as are several of the men in the cast), and he and "movement designer" Karen Krolak have devised interesting martial-arts-inspired dance forms - think mass capoeira (above) - to put over the many clashes of the play. I admired all the effort that went into this, and the actors' skillful commitment to it; and the battles did catch fire in one brilliant gambit, where Aufidius and Coriolanus slogged away at each other within a kind of cage (left). But clever as it was, the movement design blurred or ignored many essential elements of the various scenes of combat. Shakespeare clearly intends Rome's enemies, the Volscians, to be seen as an even more savage society than the nascent republic on the Tiber; yet this is lost in Krolak's designs, which feel more like cooperative dance than conflict (a similar distinction between plebe and patrician is likewise lost in Molly Trainer's costume design). Walsh seems to imagine that the play can be seen as a clash between Soviet-style communism and Italian -style fascism; to which again I can only say: not quite; the Roman mob had neither theory nor discpline, and the Fascists had a lot more style than seen here. There were many more such gaps and blind spots in the production; the homoerotics of the military (and of the eventual coupling of Coriolanus and Aufidius in particular) was mysteriously absent, when it isn't just indicated but directly stated by the text (coming right after Walsh's similarly strait-jacketed turn as Antonio in Merchant of Venice, we're beginning to wonder about this guy!). And in the end, the setting - the interior of the Somerville Armory - didn't really deliver much in the way of militaristic atmosphere, as it was basically indistinguishable from a high school gym. ASP sometimes imagines that the social meaning of a space trumps its actual physical aesthetic, which just isn't true; their most successful venues (The Tempest, Titus Andronicus) have succeeded because the existing space roughly approximated an appropriate "set," not because of any social or philosophical "overtones" of the venues. This is just one of the many illusions I wish this talented troupe could shake themselves free of.

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