Its other strengths aside, Michael Kahn's production of "Coriolanus," which opened last night at the Shakespeare Theatre, demonstrates that this neglected play can hold its own with the famous tragedies. Like "Othello," "Lear," "Macbeth" and "Hamlet," "Coriolanus" is a tragedy of character--a brilliant soldier, Coriolanus (Andrew Long) is both too proud and too honest to make the accommodations that would allow him to flourish in peacetime political life.
Long's Coriolanus enters wearing a military cap whose brim shadows his eyes. As he scornfully breaks up a crowd of workers agitating for better corn prices, the audience doesn't know quite what to make of him. Our modern sympathies tend to be with the workers, and Kahn has enforced this prejudice by clothing the Romans in uniforms that strongly suggest Nazi Germany. Thematically, this turns out to be little more than window-dressing, since no actual political parallel is drawn, and what sense of threat there is comes from the Tribunes (Floyd King and Eric Hoffmann), who wear hammer-and-sickle armbands, and the violent mob they control.
Fortunately, specific political analogies become unnecessary as the action of the play comes clear. Coriolanus is the greatest dramatic example of a well-known type: the man of action who cannot adapt to the subtle, hypocritical mores of the society he fights to protect. Americans are likely to think of the disillusioned Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, who, in disgust at civilian politics, refused to stand for office: "If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve."
Coriolanus has 27 scars from his career defending Rome, but unlike some modern politicians, he balks at parading them to gain popular support. His suffering is his own business. Nor will this anti-democrat pretend to like those he despises. To him, the people of Rome are a bunch of unbathed whiners who can't even be counted on to fight well.
One senses a harsh grain of truth in this picture of what the military culture thinks of the civilian one. Clearly, it's not one of those things anyone wants to talk about. But Coriolanus talks about it, and anything else that pops into his mind. "His heart's his mouth," sighs his friend Menenius (Ted van Griethuysen).
At the urging of his friends in the Roman Senate, including Menenius, Coriolanus seeks the position of consul. The wily Tribunes stir up the mob against him and manage to get him banished from the city.
This not only insults Coriolanus's honor, it offends his common sense: Why would any government do this to a man without whom it would probably not even exist? Nothing if not direct, Coriolanus strides over to Rome's enemies the Volscians and joins with them. There's no self-pity in this decision, really, only a pure, almost innocent logic. Coriolanus is a soldier; it's what he does. If he can't fight for Rome, he will fight against her.
Long has the odd combination of irony and innocence, as well as the natural authority, that the role demands. He's excellent at conveying, with little emotional fuss, Coriolanus's essential alienation, the loneliness of the heroic man of action. When this banished soldier goes over to the other side, his former enemy Aufidius (Keith Hamilton Cobb) embraces him with joy. Though not played for its sexuality, the moment is more erotically charged than any of the prancing about in "A Midsummer Night's Dream": This is a meeting of soul mates.
Then Coriolanus's mother, wife and little son come to plead with him to spare Rome. The conqueror uncharacteristically shows mercy, and so ensures his doom. Lear and Macbeth are destroyed in part by the faults in their characters. But Coriolanus meets his downfall at the moment he abandons his true flawed self for a higher cause.
There are parts of the play Kahn doesn't seem particularly interested in, notably the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother, Volumnia (Sheila Allen), which strikes not only the audience but also the characters onstage as peculiarly close.
Looking like a benign middle-class matron--a bit plump, a bit prim--Allen lets Volumnia's frightening force emerge gradually. She plays her final meeting with her son so powerfully that she momentarily takes over the play. Nonetheless, strong as the actors make their individual characters, the mother-son bond doesn't have much intensity. The risk-courting manly man who is a mother's boy is a well-known figure in history, but no such complexities are explored in this production.
Van Griethuysen is such an intelligent, good-hearted, honorable Menenius that he makes the case for "civilization" single-handedly. King and Hoffmann's Tribunes are almost comically slimy but also genuinely threatening. In smaller roles, David Sabin, Emery Battis, Timmy Ray James, Peter J. Mendez and Ralph Cosham make strong impressions.
Walt Spangler's metal set can metamorphose into city walls, a gentlemen's club, the hall of the Senate, but is always essentially an enormous stairway--a parody/invocation of the famous steps of the Roman Forum (where Julius Caesar was stabbed), as improbably wide and tall as a staircase in a Broadway musical, a set for the theater of politics.
Piercingly, almost coldly intelligent, "Coriolanus" lacks the heat of the better-known tragedies, and this may account for its lack of popularity. In its combination of detachment and psychological penetration, it feels amazingly modern. The austerity is Brechtian, the cool compassion and ambivalence Chekhovian. Like its hero, the play scorns an audience's love yet deserves the highest respect, even awe.
Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn. Lighting, Robert Perry; music, Louis Rosen; costumes, Jess Goldstein; fights, Rick Sordelet; voice coach, Kate Wilson; assistant director, P.J. Paparelli. With Elizabeth Long, Robin Moseley, James Klingenberg, Stephen Paul Johnson, Craig Hartley, Terence Aselford, Ty Burrell, Tim King, Joel Weaver, Patrick Ellison Shea, Eric E. Oleson, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Bernardo De Paula, Casey Groves, Gavin Hoffman, Tiffni Jellinek, John Kim, Daryl Lathon, Michael Laurino, Rahmein Mostafavi, Alexa Scott-Flaherty. At the Shakespeare Theatre through March 12. Call 202-547-1122.
CAPTION: Harsh grains of truth: Andrew Long is the anti-democratic soldier who scorns the mob and balks at the hypocrisies of politics in the Shakespeare Theatre's "Coriolanus."
CAPTION: Family and friend: Sheila Allen and Ted van Griethuysen shine in "Coriolanus."