nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
June 15, 2006
This sort of review is never easy to write. I know from experience how difficult it is to mount a play by Shakespeare within the particular constraints of producing in New York City. So, my heart goes out to Shakespeare NYC for their efforts doing Coriolanus. I want to encourage them in their quest, but I am afraid I cannot recommend this particular production.
Surely there is something here to which a contemporary audience can relate, even in the most straightforward interpretation. Here's the story:
A soldier (Coriolanus) is so successful in defeating a country's enemy that he is asked by the ruling class to assume the position of supreme leader, with the caveat that the general populace must approve his election. The soldier grudgingly accedes to this request though he has no empathy with or sympathy for the common people, who he regards as cowardly sheep. Meantime, certain elected officials do not approve of this election and work to manipulate the populace against it. They prevail in their machinations and the soldier is not only rejected by the people but banished from the country. Furious at the indignity of it all, the soldier joins up with his former enemy and attacks his country. Only the titanic entreaties of his mother succeed in halting his path to patria genocide. The enemy leader, harboring a venomous grudge, rejects this brokered peace and murders the soldier. In the end, the memory of the dead man will live on as the great soldier he was.
Shakespeare NYC's production, under the direction of founder and artistic director Beverly Bullock, lets the story speak for itself on a simple stage with costumes appropriate to the period (Rome, circa 500 BC). It would seem that the production is in keeping with the company's mission to present "the entire canon of Shakespeare's plays in theatrically gripping productions that are not goosed up or dumbed down." Bullock appears to take her credo to mean that concept is anathema; that the text will take care of itself. This is where I strongly disagree. Every production needs a point of view. Minimally, it is always the playwright's, which must be the case with new work. With revivals, though, sure, the author's ideas shine through, but sometimes the director can focus that view, or steer us into realms of thought and resonances only possible by the effect of seeing the play through the glass of time and human experience. I have come to firmly believe that for a general 21st century audience, most classic texts need this focus.
Though a noble effort, in my view, Shakespeare NYC's Coriolanus does not succeed in giving us a "gripping production." The performance is too long, the staging is unimaginative and the acting is mostly pedestrian.
Bullock's edit of the text is almost fine, timewise—she's cut the five-act classic to less than three hours including intermission. It's just that the intermission is placed such that the first part is 75 minutes and the second part is 90 minutes. That second stretch could have used another break.
Bullock, who also designed the production, does not help matters with a symmetrical set, placed mid-stage, parallel to the audience and consisting of one large central double door in a classic style buttressed with a platform on either side and flanked by curtains. The inherent stasis in this symmetry is at odds with the volatility of the play and, though a possible design comment, presents an obstacle that the production shouldn't have to overcome at the outset, i.e., the look is simply boring. Opportunities for interesting stage pictures are severely limited and Bullock limits them further by rarely using the set's main feature, the central door, and causing most entrances to come using the end curtains. Given the geography of the set the acting thus tends to be on one left-to-right plane, either in profile or with one or more speakers upstaging themselves.
Why is acting for the proscenium a disappearing art form? Why do actors consistently insist that they must stare at the person to whom they are speaking? We do not in real life stare into each others eyes all the time when talking; why do so onstage? There is an inherent awareness of the audience in Shakespeare's works because he wrote primarily for the Globe, an open-air thrust stage where the audience was immediate and in the actors' faces. Bullock's production closes off the audience and only opens up to us on a few soliloquies. At those times, the direct address is oddly jarring. I think the company would benefit from a different venue; this production should have been staged in the round. Then, the company would be free in their naturalistic approach and the audience would be engaged.
The fight direction by Al Foote III is a stylized version of the period, utilizing shield, sword, and spears. Not all the actors are stellar combatants, but they are good enough to make the choreography effective—Foote is good at utilizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses of actor combatants. As in most stage fighting, there is a certain amount of required suspension of disbelief, so we tend to go with the action. There is one "suspension" that seems odd: during the first major battle, Coriolanus gets very bloody. The text calls for it, but the naturalism of the stage blood seems out of place in the stylized fights: others are hurt but there is no other blood.
The character of Volumnia sums up the problem with the play when she says "Anger is my meat." Anger is the engine that drives the play and it is unrelenting. Subtleties, moderations, and modifications must be found in order to hold our interest because Shakespeare provides virtually no comic relief. The trap into which many of the company falls is this lack of variety. Anger doesn't equate with high volume. As Coriolanus, Marcus Dean Fuller is rarely believable when angry and shouting. When he modulates his speech and tempers the volume, he is believable and fun to watch. Volumnia, Coriolanus's mother, is one of the major female roles in the entire Shakespeare canon. Here, I am afraid, Elizabeth McGuire just doesn't achieve the depth and breadth of the role—she speaks too slowly and we lose the train of her thoughts. More successful are Duncan Hazard and Nicholas Stannard, the Tribunes, who are articulate of speech and whose characterizations are clearly defined and quite engaging. Sam R. Ross, who plays Coriolanus's arch enemy Aufidius, is also honest and believable, though at times he also succumbs to a slowness of pace.
Shakespeare definitely has a thematic core to Coriolanus. In my view, it is about a democracy where leaders manipulate the rank and file to sway the electorate for their own ends. Seem familiar? It is a noble mission to produce Shakespeare's entire canon in performances where the text is paramount. But I still think you need a directorial point of view. And you certainly need actors with the language facility to keep the audience engaged. I came away from Shakespeare NYC's Coriolanus not knowing what the play means to the company and dismayed by the uneven performances. They are certainly onto something; things just need to be much more crystallized.