Shakespeare’s plays were written for the educated and non-educated alike. But, despite the Bard’s intentions, recent productions of his work seem to forget the latter category — aiming instead to attract audiences composed of academics and intellectuals for whom no Shakespearian play is new and for whom no line of text goes unanalyzed. Not so for David Muse’s DRA ’03 production of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” at the University Theatre through February 1. Muse’s production is clean and crisp in everything from storytelling to aesthetic. Unfortunately this neatness, however pleasing to the ear and eye, robs Muse’s production of subtlety and depth.
“Coriolanus,” one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays, is also considered to be among his most politically charged works. “Coriolanus” chronicles the further rise and fall of Caius Martius (Derek Lucci DRA ’03), a Roman general and war hero whose pride poisons all his political endeavors. Martius, a well-respected Roman general, wins an impressive and bloody victory over the enemy, the Volscians, in the city of Coriole. He then returns to Rome where he is renamed Coriolanus and becomes consul at the people’s request, only to be exiled when the people are incited by their tribunes to change their minds. Martius, now Coriolanus, turns to his chief enemy Aufidius (Peter Macon DRA ’03) for support and joins the Volscians in an attack on Rome. Convinced to end his treason by his mother Volumnia (Heather Mazur DRA ’03), Coriolanus tries to advocate peace between Rome and Volscia, but his temper and Aufidius’ mistrust prove fatal.
Lucci presents an inconstant Martius, one whose motives are difficult to follow and whose deeper feelings are suspect. His performance makes for an ungrounded character –each emotion is played as it arises and then dropped. It is difficult to find a complete arc of character or cohesion in Martius’ journey from general to consul to outcast to traitor. While Shakespeare’s text does not make Martius a clear villain, in this production it is hard to think otherwise, as it is difficult to identify with Martius or his dilemma. The result is that most of the play is spent analyzing and discussing a character whose true nature and motivation remain unknown. Martius’ deeper motivations and feelings are glossed over in the interest of theatrical sparkle and shine.
The high point of this production of “Coriolanus” was by far the performance given by Mazur in the role of Volumnia, Martius’ domineering mother. She played beautifully and with great heart — each scene of hers was made many times better by her presence. When she was gone for a time, one waited impatiently for her return. Hers were the most moving scenes of the entire production.
With the exception of a few performances, Muse’s production was haunted by heavy-handed gestures and obvious humor. At times this quality made the action easier to understand, but it gave the production a facile air which seemed to run counter to the text. The effect was that of slipping unwritten comedy into the cracks of tragedy — as in the insertion of a Brooklyn accent here and there, or an adolescent rolling of the eyes in the midst of a tragic scene. At times the effect worked, producing a laugh in the midst of a serious moment, but for the most part, these little additions were distracting and made it ever more difficult to identify with the characters who used them.
Where Muse’s talent shone, however, was in the realm of action. Coriolanus’ plot of two warring nations, each with her own champion, provided ample opportunity for a good sword fight, and Muse took excellent advantage of this. The scene in which Martius battled Aufidius was one of the most charged in the production. The choreography was thrilling and engaging, succeeding where the quieter tragic scenes failed.
The set, designed by Blythe Quinlan DRA ’04, was a kind of miniature coliseum, with the audience acting as spectators of the action which plays out in the round. The production palate added immeasurably to the crispness of Muse’s production — the stage was filled with bold primary and secondary colors, each of which was a kind of signifier for a character, group or nation. The costumes, designed by Camille Assaf DRA ’04, placed the show in a number of periods and locales, most notably placing the plebians in the clothing of the early 20th century American poorer classes and the patricians in 19th century upper-class or military costume. Assaf’s creations interacted beautifully with the set, sometimes putting the actor in harmony with his or her surroundings, sometimes creating a jarring contrast.
Audience participation proved an important part of the show, with the actors often appealing directly to the audience to join them in cheering, standing to welcome a dignitary or shouting “It shall be so!” at the banishment of Martius Coriolanus. The energy of the cast is impressive, and their eagerness is often enough to illicit happy responses. But without the necessary emotional depth, audience participation here loses its potential to change and move and becomes merely another part of this cool production.