“Coriolanus” Traces the Drama of Democracy in the Wake of War

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Vengeance. Politics. War. Love. These elements have fascinated storytellers since the dawn of history. And arguably none other than the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, has articulated these themes in the most enduring, culturally persistent manner, and his work somehow finds relevance every theater season.

Last Saturday, Claire Trevor Drama staged the premiere of “Coriolanus,” one of Shakespeare’s later, more overtly political tragedies. It’s not too far an imaginative leap to draw parallels between this centuries-old political tragedy depicting the fickleness of the masses in a deeply divided, class-stratified republic and the real-world drama that has played out in the past few months on the national stage. At the center of the plot is a divisive, volatile election.

“Certainly the election came up when I was assigned this play in March,” director Paul Cook said. “The similarities occurred to me right away. But if we made the production so topical, it wouldn’t make sense if the election went one way rather than the other.” To deal with the obvious parallels, Cook sidestepped setting the play in obviously contemporary times; instead, he went dystopian.

Beau Hamilton costumed actors in ahistorical, apolitical fantasy gear — the lower classes wrapped in denim rags and the patricians resembling ostentatious extras in “The Hunger Games” films’ Capitol — complementing the understated futurism of Tyler Scrivener’s scenic design.

“Since Shakespeare is so, well, old, we had a lot more room to experiment and do something totally new,” said Cook.

The play unfolds on a small space, without a raised stage, and the audience totally immersed in the action. “I wanted to dispel the assumption that Shakespeare is removed, academic, dusty,” said Cook. “So, staging the play so intimately forces the audience to really engage with the actors and the story.”

On the blank slate of nondescript dystopia, he began to sharpen the point of this timely production. “I just thought about what the basic nuggets of truth were buried in the material. What are the important parts and what can I cut out?” This dark fantasia, removed from the logics of recognizable reality, also allowed Cook to cast women in roles traditionally performed by men, such as the protagonist’s wartime rival Aufidia (Aufidius, in the original text).

The students of the 2017 MFA program handily played the Bard’s cast of tragic characters. Amandla Bearden ripples with vigor as Marcius, the protagonist war hero turned reluctant politician whose fate seems pliant to the wills of the political machine, the capricious temper of the “rank-scented,” unwashed masses he loathes to serve and the single-minded aspirations of his mother, Volumnia, patroness of Rome. One of Shakespeare’s more complex female leads, Volumnia is brought to matriarchal life by Madison McKenzie Scott, whose imperial presence consumes every scene she occupies and stands up to Hamilton’s hyper-regal costuming. Her hypnotic delivery of Shakespeare’s verse makes clear Marcius’ struggle — to stay true to himself, or to fold to his mother’s familiar manipulation.

Ultimately, Marcius folds and runs for office, into the scheming arena of Roman politics. As Menenius, senator and supporter of Marcius’ bid for office, Thomas Varga’s slick charisma and sportive charm makes him well-suited for the part of the smooth-talking patrician. Nick Manfredi and Nicole Cowans played well off each other as the scheming, ambitious tribunes, Brutus and Sicinia, representatives of the citizenry to the consulate. Cowans’ Sicinia, another of Cook’s gender-bent characters, and Manfredi’s Brutus deftly captured the sneaky, refined finesse of these tribunes who seek to exploit the tense body politic for personal power by launching a smear campaign against the unassuming newly elected consul, Marcius.

Ousted from office and exiled from Rome, the deposed Marcius seeks solace with his long-standing rival, Aufidia, who seeks to invade Rome. Aufidia (Alex Raby) shines most opposite her nemesis Marcius, in scenes where Raby expresses her persuasive range— seething anger, to poised arrogance, to regretful sorrow. Her disappointment at Marcius once again caving to his mother’s pleas for him to return his allegiance to Rome points to the tale’s eventual tragic end.

What’s to be learned, then, from this story of ambition and the trappings of democracy? Cook, unconcerned with the events outside the small space, summed up the spine holding up the production: “When you try to force people in boxes, shit gets fucked up.”

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