It is not a particularly well-known, or particularly well-loved play - but this production, in an election year marked by vicious political and personal back-stabbing, IS particularly well-timed. This fact gives "Coriolanus" a relevance that no other play in the Shakespeare canon can match, and much of its considerable charm lies here.
Set in modern times, the show opens with a mob of paupers, upset with the reality of the rich getting richer and leaving no room for the common, everyday man, leading a very Occupy Rome-inspired protest outside the Senate. (Sound familiar?) General Caius Martius (later named victorius with the title of Coriolanus) has protected Rome from Tullus Aufidius and his band of guerilla rebels, earning him the eternal hatred of Aufidius, but great renown from the constituents of Rome, solidifying his status a man of the people. (Tellingly, though, he secretly believes that "the people" truly suck - his love is for the entity of Rome.)
This leads to Coriolanus taking a post as a Tribune, (a kind of Roman Senator, I suppose - I'm not up on my Roman history) - a move that is seen as auspicious by his social-climbing mother. Coriolanus is a reluctant politician, however. (He fully realizes his inability keep his mouth shut or to abide any bullshit from either the common rabble or his ambitious contemporaries.)
Even as he is groomed for greatness by his Senate mentor Menenius, a pair of jealous Senate rivals - Sicinius and Brutus - begin a smear campaign against him, distorting facts and often fabricating stories wholesale, aimed at discrediting his new-found popularity. (Again, sound familiar? I wonder if HE has a Roman birth certificate?) Even with his doting mother and his faithful wife watching his back, the gullible accept the nonsense as truth; Coriolanus doesn't even finish his first term, and is banished forever from Rome. (Hmmm.)
Understandably miffed at this slight, Coriolanus forms a formidable alliance, and joins forces with the man who hates him most, Aufidius - who obviously understands his discontent. They makes plans to burn Rome to the ground. When the people hear that Coriolanus is on board with the rebels, they know that they are in real trouble, and suddenly bitching over a few bucks is the last thing on their minds. Those close to Coriolanus are sent in to mediate - but Coriolanus ignores his devastated senior officer's, his concerned mentor's and his wife's pleas to save the city, before finally being the good boy who listens to his mother. Naturally, this backpedaling does not sit well with his new partner, and their bitter bloodfeud resurfaces in a battle that only one can win.
Director Donna Northcott helms the show with a sure and steady hand. Even when some actors had diction or volumes problems, the staging was so clear that you could follow the action with little to no trouble. In the crowd scene, her large cast looked even larger, making the intimate scenes that much more powerful.
Reginald Pierre scores as Coriolanus - powerful, haughty, and even a little bit snarky (Anybody ever heard of "hubris'? Hey. The guy wasn't perfect, after all.) Michael Juncal provides the perfect foil as Aufidius - a good heart tainted with a bad attitude - charming and scary. (When he growls "Martius", I had flashbacks of Ricardo Montalban purring "Kirrrrrk!") Richard Lewis as Menenius is a study in wisdom and loyalty, and Brian Kappler and Paul Devine as the jealous Senators are his polar opposites, appropriately slimy and self-serving - in fact, every time Devine's Senator spoke with an accent tinged with more than a drop of the American deep South, I had to both giggle and pee my pants a little bit. Betsy Bowman and Donna Postel as the wife and mother, respectively give the main female characters depth and grace (although I always like to see Bowman with a larger role - maybe next season?). Aaron Dodd stands out as Coriolanus' right hand man Cominius - a career soldier battling conflicting feelings about his former honored comrade turned vengeful mercenary.
A simple tale told well, right? Well, mostly.
My only problem is that this simple story, which really doesn't have a lot of subplot at all, times in at almost 3 hours (counting the intermission). Don't get me wrong - it never really seemed to drag much at all - but... I believed the production could've been better served with just a little more judicious trimming.
Yes. I said it. Even the genius of Shakespeare probably needed to be tempered by a cold-hearted, heavy-handed editor.
St. Louis Shakespeare's production of "Coriolanus" continues thru July 29th at the Grandel Theater. For tickets or more information, you may visit stlshakespeare.org, or call 314-361-5664.