Shakespeare's 'Coriolanus': A perfectly political play

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Entertainment,Music,Barbara Mackay

The Shakespeare Theatre Company is running a related double bill about leaders who are also considered enemies of the state, called the Hero/Traitor Repertory.

The first play, "Coriolanus," is a great, sprawling action play, full of sword fights, knife fights and social upheaval between Rome and a neighboring tribe, the Volscians. It is also an extremely political play in which the issues of class, government and control are hotly debated. The main character is an uncompromising Roman military hero, Caius Martius (Patrick Page).

Director David Muse has skillfully harnessed the seething mass that is "Coriolanus," primarily by keeping Shakespeare's language crisp, by keeping all the pro-Coriolanus and anti-Coriolanus elements as clear as possible and by making the antithesis at Coriolanus' core simply a fact, not something to judge.

"Coriolanus" begins with riots in Rome after corn is withheld from the citizens. Caius Martius is openly contemptuous of the rioting people, setting himself up for their hatred. When war breaks out and he goes off to fight, he returns from taking the Volscian city of Corioles and is given the honorary name Coriolanus.

Onstage
'Coriolanus'
» Where: Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW
» When: Through June 2
» Info: $43 to $105; 202-547-1122; shakespearetheater.org

The Senate votes to make him consul, but he must show his scars to the plebians and beg for their votes, which the proud Coriolanus cannot do. Eventually, the people banish him, he goes to the home of his former enemy Aufidius (Reginald Andre Jackson) and the two unite to attack Rome.

Page is electric as Coriolanus. As his bass-baritone voice articulates some of Shakespeare's most complicated poetry, he brings to this production all the gravitas and seriousness of purpose his character requires.

His mother, Volumnia, is one of Shakespeare's most astonishing women -- hard, manipulative, unkind. Here she is delightfully portrayed by Diane D'Aquila, a force of nature who comes on like Margaret Thatcher, though less forgiving. Jackson is strong as Aufidius, the enigma who welcomes his former enemy into his home.

Set designer Blythe R.D. Quinlan has created a perfect timeless set for this "Coriolanus." Gray concrete walls soar from the stage to the top of Sidney Harman Hall. Right at the start, the set contributes to the symbolism of the play. While the plebians are rabble-rousing over corn, the entire top half of the set lifts up, revealing Rome's patricians looking down on the workers.

Costume designer Murell Horton carries along the ageless look of this production. Soldiers wear armor and boots, tribunes and senators are dressed in suits, patricians wear long graceful coats.

"Coriolanus" is one of Shakespeare's hardest plays to stage. Muse and his team have thankfully figured out a way to make this first Hero/Traitor play credible, muscular, understandable and leavened with fillips of humor.

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