Friday, August 3, 2018

Sunstruck 'Coriolanus': IndyShakes stages its last production at White River State Park

Learning mutual respect: Aufidius (left) and Coriolanus hone their rivalry in war.
Not known for either frequent productions or lots of famous quotations, "Coriolanus" has one line that's oddly lodged in our cultural memory. It's also characteristic of the prickly warrior hero in its plainness and absoluteness.

"There is a world elsewhere," says Shakespeare's ancient Roman general publicly in abandoning his hometown. It turns out the world he looks toward extends no farther than the nearby tribal state of the Volscians, with whom Rome is at war.

The prideful turncoat cannot foresee how badly such a move will end. He sets the political tone of the tragedy: Foresight is rare among people who can't look beyond their pride and immediate desires. In times of social turmoil, living in the moment has scant survival value. This is reinforced right up through the repeated final line — a touch by which Robert Neal, director of the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company production, signals the enduring fickleness of political fortune.

As played by Grant Goodman in the first of three performances Thursday evening, Caius Marcius Coriolanus is consistent in his contempt for the people and resistant toward any obligations his society may impose on its star soldiers away from the battlefield. Goodman brought unbending ferocity to the role, which requires an almost impervious air of command, but also something greater. Coriolanus is humble initially before his Volscian nemesis, Tullus Aufidius, and, eventually, before his controlling mother, Volumnia. Goodman made both relationships believable by moderating the general's tone and thus lending this difficult hero more than a touch of human tragedy. Let's face it: The sort of people who attend plays today have usually little sympathy with the warrior ethos, so a three-dimensional Coriolanus is a must. IndyShakes has a great one, authoritative and nuanced.

Aufidius and Volumnia are also distinguished for having superior perspectives and a gift for articulating them. Scott Russell, as the Volscian general, projected not only the valor expected in a warrior culture, but also a sense of foreboding about his acceptance of Coriolanus' services to his cause. l liked the way lighting isolated Aufidius in his realization of the danger during a long second-act speech. Not meant to be a soliloquy but rather a response to a lieutenant's provocative suggestion that maybe taking on the charismatic Coriolanus wasn't such a good idea, the speech is richly speculative. Rhetorically, it's almost Hamlet-like, and thus it stands out in a drama where no one is accustomed to seeing beyond his or her nose. Russell's Aufidius was not only a military he-man, but also a shrewd political analyst with good reason to question his impulsive embrace of an old rival.
Volumnia wins a hard victory over her son.

As Volumnia, Constance Macy displayed the unique perspective of a mother proud that her son has "sucked valiantness" from her, but not the pride that has put all she loves in peril. The character mounts an elaborate plea to her son that sounded all possible notes in this performance: self-pity, patriotic appeal, sentimentality, recrimination, family honor. (In that respect, though it's understandable why no young Marcius accompanies Volumnia and the women in that late scene, the omission weakens one of the chief ways the mother's earnestness strikes home.)

Not to get all English-majorish on you, but it's worth bringing up another aspect of the special quality of Macy's performance. T.S. Eliot's preference for "Coriolanus" ("Shakespeare's most assured artistic success," he called it) over "Hamlet" is notorious and much disputed. But the basis for it is understandable, even if narrowly focused.  Each play hinges on a deeply conflicted son's connection to his mother, Eliot pointed out, and Queen Gertrude is simply inadequate as a focus of Hamlet's problems. Volumnia, however, is up to the task, formidable like the bosom of Abraham in the old spiritual. She's just as stalwart as Coriolanus — he can't get around her, he can't go over her, and so on. She's so believable a counterforce that the play's climax is thoroughly commensurate to the Roman general's advantages and failings. And she's where Coriolanus has to rock-a his soul, as much as he hates to.

For the Roman side: Cominius, Coriolanus, and Menenius.
One other character attempts to perspectivize what's happening to Rome, and that's Menenius, Coriolanus' only loyal friend. It's a difficult role, in that Menenius gives evidence of heroism, but he's also a bit fatuous, like Polonius. He's self-described as both "light and heavy," and I found the ambivalence well represented by Ryan Artzberger, ever-resourceful in roles whose center is a bit out of focus. Menenius' tipsy conversation with the treacherous tribunes, played with unctuous rascality by Scot Greenwell and Bridget Haight, was a delight, skating on the edge of the disaster to come.

The only other player not double-cast is Jen Johansen, who as the general Cominius represented a single-minded devotion to the military defense of Rome in a manner that obliquely emphasized Coriolanus' weirdness. The rest of the cast, often necessarily alternating between Romans and Volscians, was first-rate. Some of them were especially vivid, shouting from the audience and leaping deftly around the terraced amphitheater, in depicting the rabble of commoners easily swayed by the tribunes and apt to put their own neediness over any other loyalty.

I hesitate to draw inferences to our own time, but as in so much else, Shakespeare sheds light on contemporary matters, this time on the perpetual menace of populism and its susceptibility to some of humanity's worse instincts — from the playwright's re-imagined ancient Rome through his own era and up to ours. The threat is enduring, and maybe that's why the play's one famous line strikes us as eerily noble, more than dyspeptic. When we're disgusted with our own, we have to believe there is a world elsewhere. The trick is to discern if it is a better world.

[Photos by Julie Curry]

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