The playbill for the Red Bull production of Shakespeare’s rarely staged Coriolanus gives the time period as "Rome, 493 B.C.E. Here, now." But, under Michael Sexton’s direction, the latter prevails: military men in camouflage fatigues and dress greens, a First Citizen with a T-shirt that reads “You can’t have capitalism without racism,” and several female soldiers all declare it’s now. There’s virtually nothing identifiable from 493 B.C.E.
In the estimation of the late director Tyrone Guthrie, the character of Coriolanus “is really rather horrid.” He is a warrior who has beaten back the hostile Volsces, led by Aufidius, whom he respects as a soul mate. When fellow patricians try to persuade Coriolanus to stand for consul, he gets into trouble. The blunt, arrogant military hero can’t curry favor with citizens whom he might easily describe as “deplorables.” For their part, the rabble is pretty dense. “Foreadvised” to deny Coriolanus their votes, they give them anyway. Then, manipulated by their handlers, the election-rigging tribunes Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus, the crowd pulls them back; the action so enrages Coriolanus that he exiles himself from Rome and throws in his lot with Aufidius.
Not as well-known as Shakespeare's other Roman plays, Coriolanus is often a feature of election years, when political machinations are the order of the day. In 1988, the Public Theater cast Christopher Walken in a famous production; in 2000, Ralph Fiennes played the character in a sterling version at BAM (he later filmed it).
Dion Johnstone is a strapping, arrogant Coriolanus, but Guthrie is right. One cannot warm to the character, and perhaps it is only the gift of star power that can make a Coriolanus tolerable. It’s no fault of Johnstone, who fits the bill in every other way, that Coriolanus remains at an emotional distance. It’s unfortunate, too, that Matthew Amendt’s Aufidius is clearly not his equal. Slighter in build, Amendt first appears costumed by Ásta Bennie Hostetter as if he were an Argentine playboy fresh from the polo field—if such a person wore a mohawk and were covered in tattoos to boot. Visually, this Coriolanus and Aufidius are no match whatever, although Amendt invests Aufidius with a wackadoo gene reminiscent of Dennis Hopper.
Both the adaptation and Sexton’s approach seem cavalier about details. Women play soldiers, which is no great stretch. But at times women are addressed as “Sir,” as if, for instance, Merritt Janson’s Junius Brutus weren’t clearly a woman—and looking suspiciously like a mother-to-be. It’s absurd for Coriolanus to say “No, sir” to her, and yet he does, and later it’s “Save you, sir” to a cocaine-sniffing, mini-skirted streetwalker as well.
The text has been wisely trimmed, though haphazardly. References to the common herd throwing their caps in the air suggests that they are wearing caps. Often they are not. And Coriolanus’s mentor, Patrick Page’s Southern-fried senator Menenius, says, “Take my cap, Jupiter”—a line clearly meant to be accompanied by an action—though he has no headgear. Other elements are pointless window dressing: audiences enter through a metal detector; flyers announce “Vote Aquí,” though there’s not a Spanish-inflected word in the production. Yet, just occasionally, there is wit: the “gown of humility” that Coriolanus has to wear as a supplicant seeking votes is primarily a red-and-white windbreaker and baseball cap.
Luckily, such distractions are outnumbered by excellent performances. Page is a sage and savvy counselor, walking a fine line between insulting the plebeians and currying their favor. Stephen Spinella as the time-biding Sicinius is a poker-faced functionary with an occasional trace of a crocodile smile.
Coriolanus also features the character of Volumnia, the hero’s military-bred momma—a great part for an older actress. Volumnia exults in hearing about his valor, his wounds, anything to do with his renown. And she is also the one person who can manipulate him. Lisa Harrow presents a pantsuited country club matron with more exuberance than steel. Still, she makes it clear at the moment Volumnia wrings his promise to spare Rome and he falls to his knees and cries “Mother!” that her character grasps that she has put Coriolanus in mortal danger.
The lesser-known plays often have parts nobody remembers, but Aaron Krohn invests the Roman general Cominius with such eloquent speech and a stalwart bearing, yet the aura of a middlebrow bureaucrat, that he makes the stolid character someone who lingers in the mind.
The opportunities to see Coriolanus are so infrequent that it’s easy to recommend Red Bull’s clearly spoken, energetic production, even with its inconsequential frippery.
Shakespeare's Coriolanus plays through Nov. 20 at the Barrow Street Theater (27 Barrow St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m., 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets start at $80; for more information, call Ovationtix at (866) 811-4111 or visit redbulltheater.org.