Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the actor who plays the role of Menenius. He is Robert Sicular, not Steve Pickering. This version has been corrected.
With a voice that rumbles and quakes like an avalanche, Patrick Page unleashes his catalytic energy on “Coriolanus,” the Shakespearean tragedy that builds ever so incrementally to a roaring finish on the stage of Sidney Harman Hall.
Page, some may recall, was the psychopathic Iago of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2005 “Othello,” and a villain of such repulsive determination that you couldn’t imagine a punishment for him too heinous. This time, he’s the titular rock-hard hero of the proceedings — and almost as much a figure held at arm’s length by an audience as his Iago.
That, mind you, is a good thing, for as a “World of Warcraft”-style battle veteran covered in scars — his proud Freudian nightmare of a mother keeps a running tally of them — Coriolanus is as remote in his superior contempt as Iago is in his diabolical delusion. Intriguingly, Shakespeare accords Coriolanus none of the ruminating soliloquies he doles out generously to the figures whose minds he wants us to penetrate in “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.” His Coriolanus has no comparable interior life. He’s a grinding machine engineered for war by dear old mom, the architect of both his glory and his destruction.
Looking action-figure buff, Page presides over the modern-dress Shakespeare Theatre Company production, intelligently if at times statically staged by David Muse, in the way classical stars did, once upon a time. His elocutionary gifts here are so much more developed than anyone else’s — with the exception of the excellent Diane D’Aquila, as his mother, Volumnia; and Philip Goodwin and Derrick Lee Weeden, as conniving Roman tribunes — that he’s an alpha-presence by throaty default. As a result, some of the crowd- and exposition-laden scenes of the nearly three-hour production, especially in the slower, 90-minute first act, are a slog. Even the vigorous beating of big drums can’t quite wake up the talkier sequences illuminating the whiny Roman rabble’s eternal disaffection.
Thanks largely, though, to Page’s outsize performance, this “Coriolanus” bakes in Act 2 to a satisfying crispness, and the story of a soldier without pity for the people he’s fighting for makes its bloody imprint poignantly felt. Though Coriolanus earns points for an acknowledgment at evening’s end of his humanity — or perhaps he just doesn’t think the world is deserving of such a specimen — the fickle common folk who revel in his ruination remain equally distant from our affection. Only the innocent, in the guise of Coriolanus’s worshipful son, Martius (Hunter Zane), seem blameless. And even his sanguineous take-away here is not an encouraging sign for civil society.
The respect vacuum between an aloof military man and his thankless public does not quite mirror our own political culture, in which there is no more universal plank than supporting our troops. Still, Shakespeare taking such a jaundiced view of populist values in “Coriolanus” is one of the play’s more extraordinary features. The scene in which Coriolanus greets the public, after being egged on to seek political office by mentor Menenius (Robert Sicular) — a sort of Joe Biden of antiquity — is a wonderful satire on retail politics.
“Answer mildly!” Menenius patronizingly instructs the clueless Coriolanus, as if coaching a hot-headed wing nut. “Mildly!” Page repeats, at first to mollify the old senator and, later, to mock. How unsuited he is to anything but eviscerating an enemy is clear as he ignores Menenius’s advice to “submit you to the people’s voices.” Standing in the city square, he can manage little more than growls and sneers.
D’Aquila’s Volumnia squares off persuasively with the son she’s manipulated. Alternately adoring and emasculating, she has built him out of equal parts steel and, for her purposes, jelly. (So smartly has Muse cast Aaryn Kopp as Coriolanus’s wispy, sad-eyed wife, Virgilia: Unable to get between this furious mother and son, her Virgilia all but wills herself into invisibility.) You watch raptly as Page melts in his mother’s shadow, a mama’s boy whose biceps are no match for an old lady’s frowns.
Muse conceives a Rome that is the opposite of a cultured capital; Blythe R.D. Quinlan’s set is a pock-marked concrete jungle whose slabs rise as if they were statuary, the resulting spaces filled by actors who look on. Murell Horton’s costumes mix 20th-century business attire and Roman military fashion, much of it in greens and grays to match the neutral colors of the Roman walls. It’s the sound of percussion instruments, overseen by composer Mark Bennett, that is the most vibrant design element, a facet that vies with Page’s own vocal instrument as the evening’s strongest.
It is after Coriolanus is freed of his obligations to Rome — by virtue of the banishment masterminded by the splendid Goodwin and Weeden’s tribunes — that the soldier comes most powerfully into his own, and “Coriolanus” itself gains power. Offering his services to Rome’s Volscian enemies, he divests himself of any emotional ties and takes up his truer calling, as an instinct-driven annihilator. Only the woman with the most elemental claim on his instincts is able to stop him now, and D’Aquila, in the play’s most exhilarating scene, accomplishes the task, meeting force with force.
“Coriolanus” is half of what the company is calling its “Hero/Traitor Repertory.” The other half is Friedrich Schiller’s 18th-century wartime drama “Wallenstein,” which opens formally next week. Such a unique, thoughtful pairing of plays is what a classical company of note is all about. Casting actors of Page’s acumen and assured technique to lead them is another.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by David Muse. Set, Blythe R.D. Quinlan; costumes, Murell Horton; lighting, Mark McCullogh; sound and music, Mark Bennett; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; voice and text, Ellen O’Brien. With Robert Sicular, Nick Dillenburg, Michael Santo, Lise Bruneau, Reginald Andre Jackson. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through June 2 at Sidney Harman Hall,
610 F St. NW. Visit www.shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.