Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2008 Coriolanus

We spent a fair amount of time on OSF’s Othello, so now that we’ve finally been able to catch all three of OSF’s other Shakespeare productions this year—Coriolanus, Comedy of Errors, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream—I thought we should take a moment, before the season ends, to make a couple of quick comments. Next year, I hope, now that we’re all moved into our new homes here in Ashland, we should be able to catch the plays (and post on them) early in the season. Huzzah!

First, Coriolanus in the New Theatre, directed by the always excellent Laird Williamson, who certainly knows how to put the New Theatre’s black box limitations to the best possible use. Here’s the OSF’s one-minute write-up:

Bred for the battlefield, Coriolanus is out of his league back in the Roman Senate, where leaders pursue their own agendas and the people are mad as hell. He can’t control his contempt and won’t compromise to save his life. Literally. Blame Volumnia, whose mother’s milk fed him heroism, but not humanity. Food for thought as we near our next presidential election. Laird Williamson’s expansive vision moves Shakespeare’s tragedy into the intimate New Theatre—up-close and personal.

I really like what they did with this play, setting it in a sort of neo-classical present, where the officers dress like the generals of a military regime—fascist or communist, choose your poison—and the troops dress like, well, our boys in Iraq. I didn’t get the impression that any of this was intended as a swipe at the current regime per se so much as a comment on the fact that, in politics and war, not much really changes, certainly not human nature. The scenes in the Roman Senate, especially, debating Coriolanus’ nomination to the Consulship, are done in such a clever way that the audience member feels he/she could be watching a CNN-televised US Senate committee hearing on, oh, a Supreme Court nomination. (So, I heard myself chuckling, it’s always been that bad?) Too, coming, as it did for me, on the night before the VP nominee debate between Palin and Biden, I was astounded at the degree to which Shakespeare had captured his own time’s version of Orwellian Doublespeak.

For this stinging applicability a good deal is owed to the canny Beltway-esque performance of Richard Elmore as Menenius, Coriolanus’ mentor and advisor (read: “political handler”), who no matter how hard he tries cannot reign in his candidate’s hot-headed, blowhard patrician arrogance.

Danforth Comins as the pig-headed general deserves mention, too. Clearly the OSF’s new “leading man”, he was a remarkable Orlando last year, one of the few inhabitants of that part capable of upstaging his Rosalind. He first caught my attention, however, as Richmond in Libby Appel’s wonderful Richard III a couple of years ago, where he likewise pulled off the not inconsiderable theatrical feat of portraying a “hero” straight—i.e., sans all shades of irony—and by golly making it stick, too. That’s no mean trick in our cynical postmodern times. In the case of Coriolanus, of course, while you certainly don’t expect to like the guy, you at least want to know why he was able to win all those wars, and Comins has the kind of physicaity, almost intimidating in so small a space, to nail it beyond the reach of question.

Ditto, Michael Elich as Aufidius, who resembles nothing so much as (speaking of McCains) Bruce Willis in a Die Hard episode. Trust me, I mean that as a compliment. Aufidius, after all, while lacking the depth of many Shakespeare roles, needs to display the sort of commanding presence that can take down empires, and Elich has it. I mean, I’ve seen this fine actor in at least a dozen roles, and has he ever given a mediocre, let alone bad performance? Nope. His versatility is amazing.

Finally, special mention of Robyn Rodriguez’ not-to-be-messed-with Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. Paraphrasing that best of all Frasier episodes, think “Lady Macbeth without the instability.” Yikes, this woman is a force of nature, and I have never before heard the (in this play) oft-repeated word “Mother” take on such an unnerving undertone—rather like the horrible “honest” in Othello.

On second thought I can recall one other production with comparably creepy “Mother” echoes: in the mouth of Hitchcock’s Norman Bates in Psycho.

Yes.

Okay, I’ve run out of time for the day…some thoughts on on Comedy and Midsummer anon.

Categories: Bard OSF.

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