Story: Roman general Caius Martius, under the leadership of elder generals Cominius and Titus Lartius, successfully leads Roman troops into battle against Volscian forces rallied by his blood enemy, Tullus Aufidius. Martius is able to withstand Aufidius’ attack on Rome and instead captures the Volscian city of Corioles. For his deeds, Cominius rewards Martius with the honorary title of Coriolanus.
Returning to Rome, Coriolanus is urged by his mother Volumnia to run for consul. He reluctantly seeks support of the people for the position, but jealous tribunes Sicinius and Brutus work up suspicion and revolt among the plebians, who subsequently call for Coriolanus’ execution. The latter leaves Rome in defiance and hooks up with Aufidius to launch an attack on Rome, but is dissuaded by his mother and wife Virgilia. Returning to the Volscian camp, Coriolanus is branded a traitor by Aufilius and killed.
Highlights: Poet T.S. Eliot proclaimed Coriolanus to be Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. Indeed, the title character has been portrayed by such notables as Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Paul Scofield, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Walken, Ian McKellen, Morgan Freeman, Ralph Fiennes and Colm Feore. It’s surprising, therefore, that it’s never been performed by St. Louis Shakespeare in the troupe’s 27 previous seasons, which notes in its news release that this marks the local debut of The Bard’s tragedy, believed to have been written between 1605 and 1608.
Other Info: Company artistic director Donna Northcott astutely notes the similarity on the political landscape between ancient Rome and 21st century America, where the lines of demarcation between the wealthiest citizens (patricians) and “the 99 percent” (plebeians) has been starkly and acrimoniously delineated in the past few years. For that reason, director Northcott sets The Bard’s work in the present day.
This is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, since no local audience has ever seen a production of Coriolanus, it’s puzzling to suggest that a modern setting is vital to galvanizing an audience with a ‘modern’ adaptation of an old story, which nonetheless is new from a production viewpoint for most of them.
Second, while moving the setting to contemporary America works effectively in noting the vicious politics and the arrogant approach of some patricians, such as Coriolanus himself, it still comes across as stilted and awkward with that Elizabethan language spoken by today’s dudes. It’s as odd as the curious set design by Amanda Handle that relies on a quartet of partial brick walls that resemble cylinders or obelisks to bracket the plot’s action.
As for the presentation itself, it rarely becomes engaging, which is unfortunate because Coriolanus has the potential to be just that. It’s at its most compelling whenever Michael Juncal is on stage. As Aufidius, he properly projects the power, rage and passion of this true warrior. Juncal adroitly handles his dialogue with conviction and aplomb, whether addressing his arch-rival Coriolanus or stirring his troops into battle.
There are a number of fine performances that are satisfactory if not stellar. Richard Lewis as elder senator Menenius delicately walks the political tightrope between supporting Coriolanus and acceding to the wishes of the people, while Donna Postel commands the stage as the title character’s austere mother, both a reassuring comfort to her son and a leader of her country as well.
Reginald Pierre is effective for the most part in the title role, showing his contempt for the proletariat while also his disdain for anyone else’s opinion of his work and worth save perhaps his mother and wife. He could benefit, though, from stronger projection and a more resonant stage presence to reflect his character’s history and demeanor.
Betsy Bowman is fine in the relatively small role of Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia, and Don McClendon and Kimberly Sansone are solid as a pair of serious Roman senators. Paul Devine adapts a most curious stance as the tribune Brutus, part Southern bumpkin and part scheming lifetime politician, while Brian Kappler as his colleague Sicinius more or less disappears in Devine’s shadow. And then there are savvy performers such as Ed Cole and Alan David, whose talents seem simply squandered or ignored in throwaway parts.
The technical artists have their moments, with some occasional spirited fight choreography courtesy of Shaun Sheley, moody lighting by Steve Miller, satisfactory sound design by Jeff Roberts, modern attire designed by Michele Friedman Siler and props provided by C. Blaine Adams.
St. Louis Shakespeare is to be commended for bringing a production of this rarely seen (here, anyway) tragedy and for pointing out its relevance to our own current political scene. ‘Tis a pity it isn’t a nobler effort.
Group: St. Louis Shakespeare
Venue: Grandel Theatre
Dates: July 26, 27, 28, 29
Tickets: $15-$25; contact 361-5664 or email@example.com
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Kim Carlson