Monday, August 13, 2012

Coriolanus and the commoners on the Common

Coriolanus in triumph.  Photo: Andrew Brilliant.
I finally caught Coriolanus on the Boston Common (across two nights; it closed Sunday), and as usual I was slightly mystified as to why people lug out their lawnchairs once a year and swat mosquitoes while watching amplified Shakespeare.  But maybe that's just what the groundlings like to do on a midsummer eve, I dunno.

Well, the mob that watched the mob in Coriolanus saw pretty much what they see every year, at least: some cleanly-spoken, if over-amplified, verse (and as this is late Shakespeare, that's no mean feat), a production that tagged several perspectives on the play without deciding on any particular one, a few good local actors, and a fair amount of spectacle.  I think even the uninitiated could tell the show was about this Roman warrior dude who just couldn't bring himself to bow and scrape to the common herd, which led to their banishing him, only then he totally turns the tables on them, which is like ironic. Or something like that.

But as usual for director Steven Maler, little of the production cohered emotionally (or politically).  And actually, despite the roaring sound effects and a charge of riot police, there wasn't quite enough spectacle this time; Coriolanus works best when the lifestyles of its warrior class clash with the squalid conditions of Rome's lower 99%, but on the Common, everyone had to make do with Cristina Todesco's toppling fort of a set (a rare misstep for Todesco, btw).

And I wish I could say the acting made up for this gap, but it didn't, not really.  Last year's All's Well that Ends Well marked an uptick in the quality of the Commonwealth Shakespeare ensemble - I remember only the heroine, Helena, wasn't up to snuff.  This year many of the same performers returned, so I had some hope for Coriolanus (even though it's an even more difficult play than All's Well).  But this time around the local stars, strong as they are, could't really play to their strengths; Karen MacDonald can play solid brass when she wants to, for instance, but she's just too warm-hearted to conjure the cold steel of the vulpine Volumnia, Coriolanus's blood-thirsty mama-vulture,  and while Fred Sullivan, Jr. nailed his laughs, as he always does, he had his usual trouble conveying emotional attachment on stage, so as Coriolanus's father figure, Menenius, he never really connected with his protégé .

Such disconnects left the emotional heavy lifting to muscular lead Nicholas Carrière (above left), who's not only easy on the eyes but also totally credible as an athletic killing machine (the sine qua non of this role).  What's more, Carrière proved himself more than a hunk of martial man-candy; he spoke the verse well, and even had a flair for physical comedy - his was the funniest (and psychologically healthiest) Coriolanus I've ever seen; the performance never dripped with the unhinged contempt so many have brought to the part - nor did Carrière hint at anything like the frightening political dimensions of, say, Ralph Fiennes's proto-fascist figure from the recent movie.

But Coriolanus shouldn't be just an action figure, he should dazzle us with something like inhuman grace; and conjuring the character's sick connection with his mother - the source of the inflexible pride that is his downfall - seemed beyond Carrière and MacDonald, at least under Maler's direction.  To be fair, the dysfunctional complex at the bottom of this relationship is obscure even by Shakespearean standards - partly because Coriolanus never gets anything like a real soliloquy; the drama operates entirely on its political surface.  Still, this was the first time I've seen the play where I got the impression the actors weren't even trying to connect at some intensely perverse personal level.  So Carrière's Coriolanus joined the long list of Shakespearean characters - from Helena to Iago to Hamlet - who have strutted their hour upon the stage at Boston Common without ever getting at anything like their subtexts.

Oh, well!  There were at least a few sparks struck elsewhere in the supporting cast.  But alas, the talented Maurice E. Parent never caught fire as Aufidius, our hero's nemesis (perhaps because Maler seemed to suppress both his exotic differences, and fraternal similarities, with Coriolanus).  Meanwhile, as the scheming tribunes of the people, Jacqui Parker and Remo Airaldi got to have a little wicked fun, even if sometimes they were all but twirling their (virtual) mustaches - particularly as Carrière seemed like merely a dude with too much 'tude rather than a potential Il Duce.

Which leads me, I suppose, to how I'm supposed to be in awe of how relevant Coriolanus is to The Way We Live Now.  Only don't we say that about every Shakespeare play every year?  What struck me most about Coriolanus this time around was actually how much of it is no longer relevant to the postmodern political scene: of course we still want leaders we can "have a beer with" - sure - but we no longer expect them to actually go into battle, as Coriolanus did.  Genuine physical courage is no longer required - and that's a big difference.  I mean, if George W. Bush or Dick Cheney had ever actually risked their lives for their country, as they asked so many other Americans to do, would they be so obviously contemptible, and wouldn't our moral relationship with them be more complicated?  And would a real, honest-to-God soldier (like Coriolanus) ever have lied to his country (much less his brothers in arms!) about anything as risky as invading another country?  Indeed, watching this play, I was struck by a strange nostalgia for its ruling class, and their cruel but honest principles and their cold, tragic élan (if this production had managed anything like  élan, that is).  Damn - I thought - if only we had conservatives like Coriolanus!  If only we had Volumnia to deal with instead of Barbara Bush!  Sure, we might be living in an overt, rather than covert, oligarchy - but at least we'd know that the deaths of our soldiers counted for something.

And one last note - at the final performance, a seemingly unscripted meta-scene was enacted by a groundling who suddenly staggered on stage just after Coriolanus had been rejected by the Roman mob. Dazed, possibly drunk, and clad only in a pair of gym shorts, the fellow began to clumsily make like a Roman plebe, but he seemed both vaguely hostile and seriously out-of-it.  Here, I thought, was Unaccommodated Man, the poor, bare, forked animal of Lear's blasted heath - as security guards (not actors with riot gear, but actual security guards) rushed onto the set to subdue the interloper.  Meanwhile the actors fell silent and stared at each other, like unstrung puppets, unsure of what to do next.  The 99%!  Onstage!!  For a moment, the false political metaphors of the production were torn open; the mob of the present day had suddenly manifested itself on the boards of its phony Rome, and the air seemed to crackle with a sketchy kind of political electricity.  But the hand of the actual State descended quickly; the police had soon drawn the unwelcome visitor off into the shadows, and the actors, after conferring with management, trudged obediently back to their entrances.  The lights dimmed for a moment, and then came back up, and the players began hitting their marks all over again, shouting in "passion" and raging against the machine, right on cue; indeed, the whole show went on just as if nothing had happened.

1 comment:

  1. Of course, in Shakespeare's time, there wouldn't be a backdrop at all.