Sunday, October 16, 2016

Bard Fest: From Catalyst Repertory, a searing 'Coriolanus'

"When a play has become a classic in drama," Max Beerbohm wrote in 1898, shortly after becoming theater
Taylor Cox as Coriolanus, a warrior brought up to cherish his wounds but resist being fawned over because of them.
critic of London's Saturday Review, "it ceases to be a play." What he meant by that is partly what drew me to single out "Coriolanus" from among the three offerings in Bard Fest: A Shakespeare Festival, which takes place between now and the end of the month in Carmel.

Beerbohm explained that being regarded as a classic in literature can't hurt the work, but if it is frequently staged, the drama is subject to so many comparisons and reminiscences of other performances that everyone involved feels tested and trapped. Its life as a text to be played is sapped in the audience's mind by ghostly repetition.

Now, Beerbohm's memory was superior to mine, and he moved in a theatrical environment where seeing multiple productions of the same Shakespeare work posed a real challenge. Nonetheless, his point rings a bell with me. I had never seen "Coriolanus" enacted before but knew it only from long-ago study in school, then rereading it just before I took in Catalyst Repertory's opening-night performance Saturday. Apart from the theater of the mind, "Coriolanus" in sound and sight physically before me was an exciting prospect. (The festival, at the Carmel Theatre Company's cozy home, also includes productions of "King Lear" and "Twelfth Night.")

This late tragedy has a strong reputation, but it is not popular with audiences and, several sources tell me, is infrequently produced. For this reason, but also for its involved, context-specific language, it is not a source of "familiar quotations." Its hero, a military man of peculiar intensity, is unlikable in the extreme. He can be admired for knowing his own mind and sticking to its dictates, but he offends our notions of loyalty, patriotism, and the need for leaders to have the common touch. A modern conservative academic whose name escapes me has observed that a huge proportion of Western literature, from Homer on, has rested upon military values — a fact that makes the kind of war-averse people who study literature squeamish. That could be a factor too in this play's unpopularity.

A bromance in blood: Coriolanus comes over to the enemy, Aufidius.
Shakespeare's tale from ancient Rome (through a source he often depended on, Plutarch's "Lives") places us in a time of turmoil on the Italian peninsula, when Romans were challenged by nearby rivals. The tiny state was imperiled by internal conflict as well, somewhat familiar in its modern counterparts, between upper and lower classes. This production has to make do with minimal suggestions of a restive, uncouth urban mob, but our imagination can fill in the crowds. The menace they present is constantly on the mind of the war hero Caius Marcius, who acquires the honorific surname "Coriolanus" after an amazing conquest of the enemy town Corioles.

Taylor Cox, his apartness signaled in the flesh by sleeve tattoos, plays Coriolanus. His spirit of independence and defiance (eventually of the patricians as well as the plebeians) never flags. He roars Coriolanus' unbending disdain for the populace, which is suspicious of his military exploits and holds him responsible for elevated grain prices that have put them close to starvation. The show's First and Second Citizens (Ryan Reddick and Tony Johnson) represented the rebellious mood stoutly, though physically they aren't quite the picture of privation.

The rock excerpts used as brief interludes between scenes capture Coriolanus' single-minded ferocity and, even when they are more reflective, serve to underline the timeless struggles the story illustrates. It was slightly disappointing to hear music as underscoring for the play's most famous speech, beginning "I banish you" and ending "There is a world elsewhere," as the hero leaves Rome. I had looked forward to taking in Coriolanus' declaration of banishment as a relief from his usual ranting and delivered without accompaniment. Costuming is a mix of warrior chic, a contemporary range of casual and dressy, and the plausibly ancient and classic. The set is a wall of drab panels, and lighting is put to work resourcefully to isolate different playing areas.

The second act offered a change of vocal tone and texture that the first act needed more of. The turn of events toward tragedy as the hero in exile comes into focus allowed for more nuance in Casey Ross' direction. I liked the contrast in style between Cox and Ryan Ruckman as Aufidius, Coriolanus' chief opponent on the side of the Volscians who bedevil Rome. Coriolanus and Aufidius have a kind of bromance in blood: Each represents to the other the warrior ideal; they are two of a kind, and their kind is rare. But since this is Coriolanus' tragedy, not Aufidius', the Roman hero proves to be more vulnerable.

Mother knows best: Volumnia reminds her son of their unshakable bond.
That crucial weakness is largely due to the outsize influence of his mother, Volumnia, played with fiery resolve by Nan Macy. Volumnia has a couple of huge speeches in the latter half of the play, a challenge to any actress and to an audience's attention. These came off well. Through gesture and diction, Macy provided some of the show's most memorable moments: I'm thinking of her chilling reminder to her son, "You're my warrior!" and to her embrace from behind as she emphasizes that Coriolanus had sucked valor from her breasts.

Credit the cast with consistency in giving expression sentence by sentence to their lines, although everybody seemed too tightly wound. I would like to have heard sense applied more often to the arc of a speech, so that it wouldn't have seemed that the actors were concentrating only on being vigorous and intelligible. Macy shaped her speeches so, and in portraying the general Cominius making the case for Coriolanus to be named consul, so did Tony Armstrong.

Matt Anderson, when he allowed himself to settle into the role of Coriolanus' father-figure Menenius, had it when he tried unsuccessfully to arrange a meeting with the hero in exile.  Ruckman displayed the knack occasionally as Aufidius, though his characterization leaned too much in the direction of a hard-bitten cynic talking to himself. As the tribunes who plot to undercut Coriolanus by arousing the populace's resentment, Paige Scott and Matt Walls were effective, but depended more than necessary on touches of melodrama to signal their nastiness.

All told, the keyed-up energy of the show I saw suits the story. Production values seem to reinforce the fact that, although the pathos of Coriolanus' situation is genuine as the tragic conclusion nears, the play focuses on insight into warrior culture, the moral quandaries it tosses up, and its perennial trouble adjusting to the political culture it inevitably helps to shape. The production gets enough things right that you won't want to miss out on that rare  chance to see "Coriolanus" in the flesh, wounds and all.

[Photos by Gary Nelson]