Thursday, October 2, 2008

OSF: Coriolanus

Mothers, eh?

Caius Martius may well have borrowed that line from Jeff Murdock of the BBC comedy Coupling when explaining to rival/ally/rival Aufidius why he's calling off his participation in their march on Rome in the closing scene of Coriolanus at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Caius, later named Coriolanus, was born and raised to be a lean, mean, fighting machine. He fights many a heroic battle for Rome, and bears the scars to prove it, but his blunt, aggressive, and brutally honest approach doesn't work so well in the two- and three-timing world of the Senate. His brusque style and open disdain for the "little guy" end up getting him banished from the city, in a move orchestrated by conniving tribunes, rather than elevated to a seat of power.

Tossed from the city, Coriolanus joins forces with former rival Aufidius, and offers to help lead a revenge march and kick butt on the city. They would have done it, too, save for the intervention and manipulation by Coriolanus's mother, Volumnia. She talks him out of the invasion. It was always a bit of an uneasy alliance for Aufidius, but the look of disappointment on his face when Coriolanus finally caves to his mom was priceless. The Volscians cut Coriolanus to pieces; no matter to Volumnia, who still gets good seats at the Circus Maximus.

One wonders why Coriolanus is not performed more often than it is. It touches on themes that are most certainly relevant today: constant war, hunger, poverty, great economic and social inequality, politicians more concerned about their careers than the country. Protesters carry signs in the opening act that refer to "Time for Change" and call for "Need not Greed." Perhaps it is because Coriolanus is something of an anti-hero, and not a subtle one. There's none of the brooding or speechifying of a Hamlet, but rather dogged pursuit of his own consistency and personal ethic.

Danforth Comins plays the lead role with a sneering relish. Particularly memorable is a lengthy and athletic fight scene between Comins and Michael Elich as Aufidius. Robynn Rodriguez is chilling and impressive as Volumnia. Rex Young plays Brutus, one of the tribunes, with particular two-faced zeal.

One also must call out Richard Elmore for his performance as Menenius, a friend of Coriolanus and the one mind in the show working toward a mutually agreeable solution to the problems of all the characters. Unfortunately, for these folks, it appears that to have peace would have left them without honor. Alas. Elmore is a veteran of a quarter century at OSF and played Orgon in Tartuffe, one of our favorites from last season.

The set was fairly spare in OSF's New Theatre. The show was staged in the round, with the only set pieces being a series of manholes though which characters occasionally passed. They'd wheel in podiums when needed for speechifying. The costuming was a little confusing, with the earlier lieutenants wearing garb that said "Nazi" and WWII with long trench coats and such. But later the military folks had modern camo and weaponry, and the politicians used cellular phones and laptop computers.

The show was hit by the first really noticeable technical snafu in four years at the festival. At the start of the second act the house lights didn't go down -- the universal signal for the audience to shut up. This went on for several minutes, it seemed. The audience didn't shut up and Weisenheimer wondered if they might be seeking some dramatic effect. Then ALL of the lights went out. Finally, they seemed to get it under control, save for one bank of house lights that kept flickering. (Lightning? Distant shelling?) When we returned to our Ashland headquarters, it was apparent that power had been out there as well. May have been some sort of area outage that threw them a curve.

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