nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 17, 2005
I think what Karin Coonrod wants to show us in her new production of Coriolanus is how quickly a crowd can turn into a mob—how, in the hands of a despot or demagogue, the rabble can become truly irresponsible, truly dangerous. It's a theme that's supported by the play, but I don't think it's the play's main theme. As a result, Coonrod's staging—presented by Theatre for a New Audience—bogs down and grows tiresomely repetitive: once the "mob" on stage (portrayed vigorously by just 14 actors) has written "The People Are the City" graffitoes all over the three walls of the stage about halfway through the so-called first "movement" of the play, there's really nowhere else to take this idea. And there's still something like two hours to go.
What I would have liked to see more of is a deeper exploration of the title character. Christian Camargo, a good actor with a deep and sonorous voice that's not a little redolent of the young Richard Burton's, gives us a Coriolanus who is mostly on the surface: a brave soldier, an ambitious but clumsy politician, a vengeful warrior, and—finally—a repentant son. I felt intimations of idealism, perhaps misplaced; of a man too noble and too proud to live long among others; of a Lancelot type whose greatness and bravery turns into a kind of Achilles' heel. But I never sensed any of this coalescing into a characterization. I suspect that had that happened, we would have here a much more interesting Coriolanus.
But instead, Coonrod seems focused on her dissonant, turncoat chorus; and also on making this early 17th century Shakespeare tragedy into something akin to Brechtian epic theatre. The actors remain onstage throughout the entire long first "movement," and all except Camargo play multiple characters, often in the same scene and without any change to their appearance. Much of the dialogue is recited "out" to the audience rather than spoken realistically between characters facing one another. Massive footlights frame the front of the stage and, at various times, shadows of the lighting grid are projected onto the rear wall; in "Movement 2," sections of the set are cut away to reveal technical elements and exposed brick. An actor billed in the program as "Theatrical Assist" portentously announces the beginning of each scene. The intent certainly is that we never forget that we're in a theatre, seeing a play; but the reason for it is never particularly clear.
Coonrod's cast is admirably diverse, and I suspect that she wants the different colors and accents and vocal tones to suggest the cacophony of the Tower of Babel, providing a neat contrast to the quick and seamless unity that her chorus achieves every time a persuasive leader gives them something to rally 'round (or against). But the result feels surprisingly jarring: Michael Rogers's heavily accented English lilts while Simeon Moore's nasal whine sounds like Snideley Whiplash on helium; Jonathan Fried (as the senior political manipulator in charge of Coriolanus) reminded me of Frasier Crane mellowly telling his radio audience "I'm listening." Roberta Maxwell, meanwhile, fumbles over line after line in her long speeches as Coriolanus's domineering mother, Volumnia.
John Conklin's set is bare save several metal chairs and tables are rearranged to suggest various locations (with differing degrees of success). Actors move this furniture around so often that, at times, the play threatens to be about little else. Anita Yavich's costumes are variations on a theme—blousy jackets and slacks that look a little like the uniforms that the Robinson family wore in Lost in Space, decked out with various combinations of belts, buttons, and zippers so that, for example, Camargo can transform his smart suit into a tattered version of same by just unzipping in a few strategic spots and exposing the bare flesh beneath. Again, there is so much fussing with the clothing that the final effect is distracting rather than helpful in terms of enhancing our understanding of what's going on.
And what goes on is, against the odds, actually quite compelling; that's the big disappointment of this production. Coriolanus, not too often performed, deserves a staging more coherent than this one. As things stand, the play drags on for nearly three hours; the first of these, especially, is a real snoozer, what with all the exposition being provided at what seems like excessive length. Nevertheless, I was glad to stick it out—never having seen the play before, I find that I can recommend it even in less-than-optimal circumstances.