By Ruth Ross
While Shakespeare isn't often thought of as a political playwright, one has but to consider Macbeth, Julius Caesar, the History Plays, Othello, Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing (the last three about sexual politics) for proof. Now, in this current political season fraught with name-calling, innuendo and fear-mongering, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has selected what is perhaps the Bard's most overtly political play, Coriolanus, as its second main stage production of the 2016 season.
This last of Shakespeare's tragedies was written sometime between 1605 and 1608, but was not performed until 1682! Replete with political manipulation, fallen heroes and revenge, the play's outer shell is political while its core is a searing portrait of a complicated and tortured highly decorated war hero wrestling with his true nature and the public persona that his family and peers have thrust upon him. Faced with famine from within and threats from outside its walls, Rome turns to this defender, Caius Martius Coriolanus, only to have him learn that his true enemies lie inside Rome—and inside himself! (Above left to right: Clark Scott Carmichael, Greg Derelian, Raphael Nash Thompson. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.)
This conflict of personal nobility and political reality hinges on the rivalry between republican (democratic, i.e., bottom up) vs. absolutist (aristocratic, i.e., top down) forms of government. The common folks’ profound dissatisfaction with patrician rule, famine and high prices leads to rioting and the expression of democratic sentiments. Without taking sides, the playwright dwells on the struggle's ambiguity and on the indecisive, self-defeating results ironically achieved by both parties. In the end, both groups learn the harsh lesson of being careful what you wish for.
This handsome and very moving production unfolds on stunning set designed by Dick Block, lit by Andrew Hungerford and accompanied by grating sounds designed by Karin Graybash. Industrial-looking studded metal panels represent the walls of Rome; they open to reveal a silver Roman eagle, suggestive of the eagle atop a swastika, the official insignia of the Nazi party. Tristan Raines' imaginative costumes signal to which party the various groups belong. The commoners wear blacks and grays slashed with red; the patricians, blazing white; the enemy Volscians, drab brown sashed with aqua; and Coriolanus and his soldiers in black, studded leather tunics and helmets. (Above, left to right: Corey Tazmania, Raphael Nash Thompson, Greg Derelian, Clark Scott Carmichael, Bill Christ. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.)
Brian Crowe's firm directorial hand keeps the action moving inexorably through various scenes and locations to its inevitable end. Greg Deralian's portrayal of Coriolanus is delicately balanced: On one hand, he is a valiant, fearless comrade in arms, humble when singled out for military honors; on the other hand, once the patricians have selected him to be consul, a position for which he has to solicit the approval of the plebeians, he shows his true aristocratic colors as he denigrates them, condescendingly calling them curs and complaining about their stench, and citing his hatred of hypocrisy, refusing to "beg" for their approbation. This war between humility and arrogance plays out on Deralian's expressive face as he struggles with his two natures. It is a masterful portrayal of a character difficult to like.
Aiding and abetting his arrogance is his mother Volumnia, the "military mother" extraordinaire who has nurtured her son's warlike qualities, pushed him to seek military fame and basks in his limelight. Jacqueline Antaramian plays this regal woman with the fierceness of a lioness protecting her cub. She's really quite terrifying. (Above, left to right: Aurea Tomeski, Amaia Arana, Anthony Joseph De Augustine, Jacqueline Antaramian, Greg Derelian. Pictured in background: Javon Johnson, Aidan Eastwood. Photo Credit: Jerry Dalia.)
The noblemen of Rome are represented by Bruce Cromer as the peace-maker Menenuis Agrippa; Raphael Nash Thompson as the dignified general/consul Cominius; and Clark Scott Carmichael as Coriolanus's loyal soldier friend Titus Lartius.
Leading the mob of commoners, Mike Magliocci is a very vocal First Citizen. And as the two tribunes appointed to represent the commoners in the Senate, John Ahlin (Junius Brutus) and Corey Tazmania (Sicinius Velutus) start off as reasonable representatives but morph quickly into rabble rousers whipping the crowd to a frenzy and driving Coriolanus into exile. (Above, right: John Ahlin and ensemble. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.)
Adding to Rome's misery are the attacking force of Volscians (the "Volskis") led by Michael Schantz as Tullus Aufidius, Coriolanus's nemesis and later ally in his quest to destroy his home city in revenge for banishment. Schantz plays this leader as courageous and fierce; his confusion and distrust of Coriolanus when the former enemy enlists his aid is palpable and understandable.
The huge cast of close to 40 (many playing multiple roles) convey the appropriate political and military upheaval. The soldiers fight ferociously while the mob scenes set a tone of instability. The easily swayed mob lacks a consistent political philosophy of its own so, prompted by the tribunes to express resentment, it giddily follows whatever charismatic orator that catches its imagination, leading to disaster for all.
If much of this sounds familiar, perhaps it's because many aspects of Coriolanus are being played out on the American public political stage this year: anger at economic inequality, a feeling of not being listened to and being looked down upon; a charismatic leader who falls short of what is expected of him (or her); and partisanship that has reached heights (or lows) magnified by the 24/7 cable news cycle and constant "Breaking News" reports that pop up ad nauseum on television.
In Coriolanus, Shakespeare's take on humanity is disillusioned, wry, almost anticlimactic. By the inconclusive conclusion, no one gets what he or she wanted. What we, the audience, do get is a polished, professional production of a little-known, infrequently performed play, and that's quite a gift.
Coriolanus will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, through July 25. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.