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Consider yourself warned, John Kerry: Rarely do war heroes succeed as diplomats. That’s one takeaway, anyway, from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a tragedy with much to say about public relations, paranoia, and political manipulation. So why is it the least staged of Shakespeare’s other Roman histories? For the same reasons that Fox News and MSNBC are more popular than C-SPAN. The first two acts get pretty talky, and can be difficult for anyone unfamiliar with the original Plutarch to parse. Stick with this nearly three-hour play all the same. In David Muse’s hands, several of its performances are outstanding, and by intermission, you’ll know what’s going on.
Middle-aged muscle man Patrick Page (recently seen on Broadway as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) stars as Caius Martius, an upper-class Roman warrior renamed “Coriolanus” midway through the play. (He’s called all three names throughout, however, and his kid is named Martius, too. Thanks, Shakespeare.) When he returns to Rome victorious, he’s perceived as the potential leader of a coup. In these pre-Empire days, Romans were constantly feuding with a neighboring tribe known as the Volsci. Later in the play, Coriolanus will attempt, unsuccessfully, to broker a peace between city-states. But what gets the plot rolling is a wartime food shortage afflicting hungry, restless Roman plebeians. To preserve their own power, two tribunes conspire to turn the people against the conquering hero.
Their task is made easier by the war hero’s lack of social graces—he ends up hurling insults when ordered to go around town shaking hands—and some retro-futuristic touches that hint at the original Star Trek. The stage is enclosed by tall faux-concrete panels that slide up and down. The plebeians are dressed in cargo pants, V-neck tunics, and cummerbunds, while the upper classes wear wool and chiffon versions of a similar anachronistic garb.
Each time the anti-Coriolanus tribunes, played by Philip Goodwin and Derrick Lee Weeden, debate their plans, we hear a ZAM!—at which point they conspire in an amplified whisper. It’s cheesy but practical in a play in which the political factions are tough to keep straight. To play Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, one of the most formidable women in the Shakespearean canon, the theater imported Diane D’Aquila, a 15-year veteran of Canada’s Stratford Festival. Whether clashing swords with her onstage grandson or boasting of her son’s war wounds, D’Aquila is a force. When she and Page trade barbs, the rest of the play seems to stop. “Oh mother, what have you done?” he says, grasping her during one play’s most powerful exchanges. If it feels, in some moments, as if Page and D’Aquila are acting while everyone else is just reciting Shakespeare, that’s OK: In this play packed with the Bard’s best political rhetoric, there’s no shame in a little speechifying.