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Coriolanus — Lantern Theater

The Roman rabble are ungrateful to and spiteful towards Coriolanus.

All this great soldier and warrior has done is stave off enemy after enemy, the Volscian commander, Aufidius, several times, keeping Rome free of invaders and those who would conquer and change its policies to their own.

But the people want more.

And not only the plebeian masses.

The patricians, the well-heeled, well-contented wealthy of Rome, tribunes among them, want Coriolanus, so named because he outfought a seemingly victorious Aufidius at the Battle of Corioli, to advance from the army into government, to be a consul, an executive and legislative leader in the nascent Roman republic, just more than a decade old when Shakespeare sets his scene.

Coriolanus, whose actual named is Caius Marcius, a shrewdly suitable moniker for fighter of his mettle, ins’t pleased about either overture.

Basically, he wants to be left alone, ready to be called upon when military service is needed, but forces stronger than him won’t let that happen.

Senators and Roman nobles inveigh Coriolanus to hold office. His mother, Volumnia, ever proud of her son and ambitious for all honors and tributes that he is poised to earn, is the most influential among that number. Fierce as he is on the battlefield, Coriolanus is a mama’s boy when it comes to pleasing his articulate, opinionated, domineering mother. (Fatal flaw #1, but not the clinching flaw.)

Then, there’s that public, the Roman citizen who lacks the patrician pedigree.

He and, in the Lantern production director by Charles McMahon, she are in general protest against Roman policy. Plebeians are starving, oi struggling to stay nourished and solvent. They want corn, stored in a municipal granary, made available to distribute to the masses to solve the hunger dilemma. Any consul who wants to be newly elected, as Coriolanus would have to be, must answer the mobs concerning his opinion on corn allotment and other matters that wander between the rigid and the populist.

Coriolanus is unsuited to such questioning, He is a soldier and a nobleman, not a politician.

The last thing he is a politician. He rules by giving orders on a battlefield, He leads by being the center of every fray and slaying the most Volscians, or whomever, to spur his men by example and seal personal glory but common victory.

Coriolanus is an asset to Rome, a laudable, almost indispensable asset. Rome’s fatal flaw is wanting to take him from the job he does best, with unparalleled competence, and move him to one for which he has no talent or disposition.

Coriolanus’s clinching flaw is he is just not a man of the people.

Not only because he’s patrician and accustomed to being obeyed. He has no ability to compromise. The man leaves no wiggle room on any aspect of his life. Only his mother can sway him, and she has, in way, encouraged him to be aloof and uninterested in common affairs unassociated with war. Neither Coriolanus not Volumnia have much truck with common people.

Volumnia has much to say, but Coriolanus doesn’t. He quite clearly wants to be left alone. He is not geared to please people or find ways to phrase ideas or opinions in the neat way a contrasting character, Menenius, does so skillfully. Coriolanus is plain spoken and grounded in the ways of his class. He is not fit to be a consul because while he can lead, he can’t bend or follow.

He can barely listen to what advocates of various causes, in the Senate or among the masses, want. The man does not care, he doesn’t want to care, he doesn’t want to be made to care.

But others will have their way.

Coriolanus’s tragic trait is his seemingly innate inability to temper what he has to say. Not only is he unable to flatter or appease, but he is unable to dissemble. He doesn’t even realize, despite the coaching of Menenius and Volumnia, that he has to. He is not the guy to be any faction’s representative. He’s beyond all or nothing. He has his set of standards, and he will adhere to them whatever the argument or whatever negotiation it might take to get most of what he wants.

This is Shakespeare’s play, one about a man of absolute, indisputable, valuable talent who can’t just rest on that talent and can’t soften his way or master enough guile to speak sweetly and charismatically to others, even of like stamp, when offered advancement to a larger role in Roman affairs.

“Coriolanus” contains a class struggle, but it is not about a class struggle. It’s about a self-contained man who, except for his reaction to his mother, gives the lie to John Donne by being an island. Caius Martius must be the hero and sympathetic figure in Shakespeare’s play. He must be seen as a great man with no common touch, the asset I mention who can make an ass of himself when he has to deal with others, especially insistent masses who are not an intrinsic part of Caius Marcius’s perspective.

McMahon’s production for Lantern has things the wrong way around. It casts Coriolanus as a problem to the Roman state and two leaders among his protestors, Brutus and Sicinius, as the heroic figures who fight for the right thing for Rome, a kind of plebeian based socialism.

Of course one can sympathize with Brutus and Sicinius. If Roman people are hungry, and corn is being left to gather in the public granary like so many schillings in Ebenezer Scrooge’s vault, there is a motive for action. If Senators will not heed the pleas of the starving, and Coriolanus is one against open distribution of corn, there is reason for protest and disdain.

Shakespeare only states the case lack of corn is an issue. He doesn’t say whether, like in the story of Joseph, corn is being husbanded and rationed in a specific way, to make the public stores last. We, today, would want that corn given out.

In “Coriolanus,” such matters are only part of a larger story and only a small part. A great man’s snobbery and desire for privacy are the crux of the matter.

Once again, the play is called “Coriolanus” because Shakespeare made Coriolanus its central figure, the one whose downfall matters and whose downfall is the tragedy. Productions should be pitched so that audiences root for Caius Marcius to reform, to trade his revulsion towards the public to a wiser, more open, more accepting stance. By making Coriolanus a villain from almost the outset, McMahon has missed the heart of Shakespeare’s play rather than piercing it. We see a “Coriolanus,” and it has its moments, especially when Brian McCann and Menenius and David Bardeen as Sicinius take center stage, but my opinion, not humble in the least, is we don’t see Shakespeare’s.

Program notes for the Lantern production mention the protests that have arisen since the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States. The essay, by Meghan Winch, casts Coriolanus in the role of Mr. Trump and Brutus and Sicinius as representatives of the millions marching for various reasons throughout the United States, and the world, in a newly Trumpian, Brexit-chosen world.

Such a parallel is forced and has no relationship to ‘Coriolanus.” Yes, masses are crying against tyranny and make Caius Marcius the brunt of their protest as the most recently elected consul. To say that is the most important part of “Coriolanus” is stretching the point.

One curiosity nags. The Lantern, and McMahon, its artistic director, chose its season before Donald Trump had securely cinched the Republican party nomination for President. How could a production of “Coriolanus” casting shadows on Mr. Trump be conceived at that time? What if, as expected, including by me until surprisingly tallies in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania shook me awake on Election Night, Hillary Clinton had been elected President according to Constitutional procedure (the Electoral College)? Would McMahon’s production and Winch’s notes be the same/

In ways, I digress, because an interpretation with which I disagree, on literary not political grounds, is only part of what mars McMahon’s production and makes Lantern’s “Coriolanus” a lackluster affair.

Charles McMahon likes commotion. His “Coriolanus,” like his 2014 “Julius Caesar,” begins with orchestrated mayhem. A sign on a door saying “Public Granary Closed” foreshadows the complaints of Roman citizens, led by Brutus, Sicinius, and a woman who is cast as Valeria but plays many parts, about the tough times being endured by the Roman populace, especially when it comes time to eat.

Protestors take to the streets is wild but determined array. The pandemonium is effective. It sets up the sincerity of the plebeians and the plight they rue and rail about. Discontent is rife, and while the marchers take to the streets, all is exciting and fraught with dramatic possibility.

The problem comes when the havoc stops. Although Brian McCann makes an immediate impression as the calming appeaser of the multitudes, Menenius, and find his usual way of making lines pay by unexpected emphases and using a individual but remarkable way of being conversational and declamatory at once, no one else is as clear as McCann is stating or soothing a case or bringing focus to his or her words. As such, we understand the situation in Rome, but we lose the specifics in the uneven readings of some of the primary cast. Unlike McCann, they say they’re words as if they’ve memorized them and need to get them out at mach speed before they forget them. Ensemble members Adam Hammet and Brock D. Vickers make their taunts and slogans clear, and David Bardeen employs slower, more deliberate pace than most of get Sicinius’s thoughts through, but others mouth more than phrase their words, so one seems barraged by tedious exposition instead of becoming engaged in the complexities Shakespeare is revealing. It’s an exercise in Hamlet’s “words, words, words” instead of invitation to hear a good and sad story. Characters other than McCann’s seem too similar, sound too similar, and don’t make their specific personalities or points of view clearly known, let alone endow them with significance.

Matters improve when chaos ensues again, this time on the battlefield of Corioli where Romans are taking a beating on two fronts by invading Volscians, and Coriolanus is working to turn the tide on one flank while discouraging Roman retreat, and possible defeat, on the others.

McMahon knows how to stage action. It’s the quieter, explanatory, and storytelling scenes that don’t get their full due or verbal clarity. Reminiscent of that 2014 “Caesar,” voices and phrasing are all over the map.

When the dust of war finally settles, and Caius Marcius has been so brave and cunning on the frontlines of Corioli he’s honored with the epithet Coriolanus, things become dull again.

Worse, they become errant.

Robert Lyons lets us see Coriolanus’s haughtiness immediately. He enjoys the congratulations for reversing the Roman position and turning certain defeat to victory, but he is not comfortable with the lavishness of some praise, the fawning that follows success, or entreaties that he take a greater that military part in Roman affairs.

The newly dubbed Coriolanus doesn’t want to be a consul or a temporal leader. He wants to rest from battle and spend time with his wife, Virgilia, and their son, Marcius, unseen in McMahon’s production, while others tend to civic, civilian, peacetime needs. Coriolanus makes it clear he will return to war if necessary but has little interest in dealing with a Senate or the electorate, both of whom have sides and petitions they can make known and expect to be satisfied.

Coriolanus knows he is not suited to politics. Menenius, his commander, Cominius, and sundry others cannot persuade him to give up his reluctance to help in governing Rome.

The one who can influence him is his mother, Volumnia, who basks in every scar announcing every wound Coriolanus has received in battle. Caius Marcius may be able to spurn Senators and other officials, but he cannot say no to his mama. She loves the idea her son will be a consul and make Coriolanus see the glory of it as well.

This part of the production makes situations and arguments plain but is strangely unabsorbing. The Lantern cast doesn’t make us care in Coriolanus says yes or no to the offer to run for consul. It’s simple to gather what’s going on, but we remain uninvested in the outcome, death to a play that depends on an audience mightily caring about the title character and wanting to see him succeed in life aside from mortal combat and, later, adapt his snooty, condescending ways to stay in office and become a significant figure in all things Roman.

Lyons adds to the coolness towards Coriolanus. He exudes no charisma nor signs of being the special man Shakespeare conceived for this play. The fine work of McCann and of Tina Packer as Volumnia is lost because there’s no foil for it, no intense give and take.

You also wonder about some of the production’s direction. Caius Marcius, newly decorated, given a ceremonial name, and wearing the laurel leaf crown of victory comes home from a fight once deemed hopeless to Roman fortunes, and he barely notices his wife. They don’t hug or seem happy and relieved to see other. Mary Lee Bednarek, as Virgilia, will later try to salvage the day by planting a sincere, romantic kiss on Coriolanus’s lips the minute she gets a chance to express her joy at seeing him, but you’ve already wondered at the loveless reunion between husband and wife.

Nor does the doting, Oedipal Coriolanus exult enough in seeing the mother who lives for his adventures and advancements and is the only one who can make this soldier listen to another human, especially one who has a different intention from his own.

This homecoming scene keeps the story moving but in flat in execution. Even Packer demonstrating adroitly how Shakespeare’s words should be spoken cannot enliven the situation.

At least Coriolanus is the focal hero to this point. McCann may glom the acting honors and give variety and energy to his lines, but the actions and decisions of Coriolanus are the points of concern.

Until McMahon gets the notion that it’s not Coriolanus who is the backbone of this play and the one we should root for, pity, and mourn as his scornful, supercilious nature ruins all his chances and threatens Roman order.

Lurking about all along have been Leonard C. Haas’s Brutus and David Bardeen’s Sicinius. They are the one who speak against the Senate and the consuls’ policies regarding rationing corn and other political matters. They are the ones who question Coriolanus, who incite the rabble against him, and who choose his fate as it affects his status in Rome.

They are the leaders of civil protest, and McMahon casts them as the play’s protagonists, the ones whose attitudes he says should hold major sway and whose harsh feelings toward Coriolanus, whom they target as a cause for their disgruntlement, are a comment against all leaders segments of a public may dislike.

No doubt Brutus and Sicinius are crucial characters, but they are two among several who paint a total picture of Rome and Coriolanus’s potential place in it. They are barely coequal to Menenius or Cominius as representatives of the numerous forces that want Coriolanus to behave in a certain way or support a certain point of view. They illustrate one faction that besets Coriolanus, albeit the faction that has the most effect in harming him and using his arrogance and pompousness against hi,, but they are neither the center nor the overriding heroes of this work.

McMahon, perhaps thinking of contemporary times, seems to think of Brutus and Sicinius as the vox populi and gives them the upper hand, the moral high ground, and the stamp of righteousness to more than contrast but to serve as a laudable example vs. Coriolanus’s indifference and contemptuous view of the masses and their desires.

Contrast they do, but that’s about all they are meant to do. Brutus and Sicinius are not the shining lights, the superior moral beings that show the perfidy or smallness of Coriolanus.

They are small themselves. They can’t brook opposition., They rouse rabble to insist on their bidding instead of making a rational case. They are protestors for protest’s sake. Even though they points to make and a reason for making them emphatically.

McMahon would have it that the righteousness of Brutus and Sicinius, and the allegedly speaking for the people, led to Coriolanus’s downfall rather than the soldier’s own disdainful, unbending snobbishness.

Where then is tragedy if the reduced or vanquished is a villain whose unhappy fate is devoutly to ne wished and whose toppling is cheered instead of pitied when it occurs?

It’s nowhere if opportunistic ideas about political fashion are given precedence over the broader ideas and themes of a classic work that is meant to be, and indeed is, a tragedy.

Coriolanus has to be the architect of his demise. If he is a victim of mere underlings like the loud Brutus and plotting Sicinius, a towering hero disposed of by partisan dissenters, there’s no majesty nor tragic tenor to Shakespeare’s proceedings. Coriolanus’s fate is in the sorry hands of people who disagree with him and work up a pliable crowd against him rather than in his rigid incapacity to charm or cajole so he could attempt to speak to the same crowd and win it to his favor.

McMahon finds parallels in Brutus and Sicinius to the people speaking out today. The trouble is Coriolanus’s failures and weak points are not Donald Trump’s, and Brutus and Sicinius are instigators more than they are the conscience of Rome or the best that republic has to offer.

There are several times during rallies arising from Brutus and Sicinius’s rhetoric that the Lantern cast chants cries meant to unify and solidify the plebeian masses. By the way that cast turns to the audience and waves their arms, it seems they intend the audience to join in their protests, the same way the audience did when Susan Riley Stevens aroused them to during an earlier passage in Mary Tuomanen’s “Marcus/Emma” at InterAct Theatre earlier this year.

The trouble is no one from the audience responded.

The protest sequences are crucial to “Coriolanus.” It is a mob that drives Coriolanus to banishment (although one would wish there was more formal authority involved with that). But they are not the most crucial nor the deciding factors in the course Caius Marcius’s life takes. They’re one among a dozen.

The point is Rome turns in on itself and acts against its best interests when it demeans Coriolanus and imposes his exile. A political nicety beyond the understanding of the clamoring masses is more significant than the injustice they wrought while supporting Coriolanus’s ouster in the name of alleged justice.

“Coriolanus” is on Coriolanus’s side, even if Shakespeare’s title character is insufferably dismissive of his fellow Romans and unheeding of their demands.

To have matters any other way, as McMahon’s approach does, diminishes the play and all Shakespeare is trying to illustrate. A filmed recent London production, with Tom Hiddleston in the title role, shows who Coriolanus is and should be. Ralph Fiennes also did a marvelous job as Coriolanus in the ’90s. McMahon’s interpretation takes the play away from its core and celebrates something Shakespeare was partially ridiculing by showing how fatal and foolhardy following the emotional leanings of a mob, even an organized, sincere mob, can be.

The political angle McMahon saw in “Coriolanus” seems to have occupied him so much, his production looks as if he forgot that after Coriolanus, the two most important characters are Volumnia and Aufidius. It is they who can eke some reaction for Caius Martius, one as a woman who holds great power over an otherwise independent son, the other a recidivistic enemy and rival who thirsts for victory over Coriolanus as much as Coriolanus covets the next chance to thrash, and dispatch, him.

Volumnia’s logic and pleas towards the latter part of the play seem to have no motive but a mother’s missing a son who has been sent away from her. Her telling statement, “Anger is my meat,” has no place in a play where she is reduced to looking like a mendicant and makes arguments to people who have never established they have authority and influence over the situation she decries and wants rectified. Tina Packer, as Volumnia, sounds glorious, especially amid some the flat and sterile voices with her on the Lantern stage, but she is playing in a vacuum. By the time she enters with the speeches and articulateness that give Volumnia strength and importance, little she might say means much. The rabble, as represented by Brutus and Sicinius, have won the day. There doesn’t seem to be much fruit to be yielded in reviewing Coriolanus’s benefits to Rome, the void his absence will cause, or the worry that Rome, having rejected and banished Coriolanus, may yet experience his wrath as an enemy fighting with and for the Volscians.

All the wronged Volumnia, the reasonable Menenius, or the succinct Cominius have to say, seems moot in the wake of Coriolanus’s dissenters getting their way.

Uneven line readings had already marred “Coriolanus’s” chances of being a success Vaunting minor characters at the expense of the focal figure secured its failure.

Robert Lyons is best in later scenes in which Coriolanus seeks to ally with Aufidius but ultimately, in keeping with tragedy, realizes the error of his ways and how untrue fighting against Rome and its troops is to his heart.

Charlie DelMarcelle manages to show the magnitude, determination, and disappointments of Aufidius even though McMahon casts the one person Coriolanus sincerely respects into a secondary figure. There’s regal bearing to DelMarcelle’s portrayal and a keenly thought-out moment when Aufidius decides he can trust Coriolanus and believe his offer to be an ally.

Brian McCann adds both dash and reasonableness to McMahon’s staging as an instinctively ameliorating Menenius, a man who has the professional politician’s knack of drawing a crowd and getting it to bow to whatever bromide he’s peddling. McCann illuminates his lines and brings out all shades of meaning in all of his speeches.

David Bardeen achieves the mere miraculous by making you listen to his Sicinius long after you decided you can glean what he wants to say from a few words and don’t have to pay attention to every thought. Bardeen, speaking slowly and conveying to the audience what Sicinius is saying, manages to break free of what seems like a group of speakers and give both his character and his character’s words depth that helps texture McMahon’s “Coriolanus” and giving Sicinius’s logic some weight.

In various parts, mostly small ones as vassals and pages, etc. Adam Hammet, Brock D. Vickers, and Hannah Van Sciver, perform excellently, Vickers infusing each of his characters with individuality that gave a human touch to McMahon’s staging.

Tina Packer, one of the special attractions considering her vast knowledge of Shakespeare, illuminating readings of the Bard’s verse, and founder of Lenox, Mass.’s Shakespeare & Company, reveals the richness of her voice and her understanding, but she is wasted in a production in which Volumnia only gets her due because Packer is such a treat to hear.

Volumnia might be the most critical female character in a Shakespeare tragedy after Lady Macbeth. She is a driving force who has influence over her prickly, stubborn son on two significant occasions, and she , though maternally motivated, is the conscience of Rome when Coriolanus has his “I’ll show them” moments, and the leaders don’t know what to make of it.

This is a lion of a woman, but McMahon somehow reduces her in scope, importance, and even station, dressing Volumnia, Virgilia, and others in the Marcius households in rough garments in later scenes. Through Packer, you hear Volumnia’s powers of persuasion and how much anger and contempt for the reigning order motivates her, but you don’t see a fierce, fearsome woman whose intensity and ferocity can turn tides and make others quail.

I waited all season for Packer to come to Philadelphia. The result was anti-climactic, but blame the productiion, not the actress.

Blame the production because so much unpointed speaking, so much misplacement in character emphasis, and so much finagling with the theme and position of hero made this “Coriolanus” a muddy, unengaging affair in general.

Passion only comes to the fore in the protestors’ chants. Vickers, Van Sciver, and Hammet create it more than the leads, Shakespeare’s political analysis that cast Coriolanus as his worst enemy, is thrown aside so far that Robeert Lyons gets only late cause to act and act up, His last scenes are the best, Brian McCann and David Bardeen do their best to bring attention to the stage, but their crisp diction and McCann’s shrewd characterization go for naught while surrounded by castmates who settle for unarticulated singsong and don’t bring forth what’s important in their arguments or, indeed, the arguments themselves.

Alex Cordaro saves some of the day as fight coordinator. The crowd and battle scenes were among this production’s best moments, reliefs amid chitchat that rarely hit home. Lyons and DelMarcelle are especially good in their to-the-death battling as Coriolanus and Aufidius.

The columns of Meghan Jones’s set established the ancient Roman setting while also serving well as a portico for Aufidius’s house and in providing multiple playing spaces lit well by Drew Billiau. Janus Stefanowicz did her usual able job in marrying a classic look with modern apparel. Robert Kaplowitz’s sound and score accented several occasions well.

Stage devices include monitors bracketed on the stage left and right walls of the theater. These show action as it happens on a fictitious Channel 7. The gimmick gets a smile for effort, but except for being a lame attempt at modernity and overprized multi-media, the pictures shown do nothing since they simple mirror action that is better seen and more effectively taken in keeping eyes on the stage. Besides, multi-media appraoches may be fashionable, but this use was not enhancing, It was just bad television. Theater has to be more aware when it is trading its immediate art for television. If too much is seen on monitors and projections, why go to the theater instead of waiting to see the show on Hulu or Amazon Prime?

“Coriolanus” runs through Sunday, April 16, at Lantern Theatre, 10th and Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday (except for March 21), 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday (through March 29), Saturday (through March 25), and Sunday. Tickets range from $33 to $42, with prices generally increasing after April 5. They can be obtained by calling 215-829-0395 or by visiting www.lanterntheater.org.

Grade: D

 

 

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