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Michael Kahn’s staging of Coriolanus begins with a striking, spotlighted image—a cascade of what looks like pure gold streaming from on high, past the placards of protesters, then disappearing through a trap door on the stage.

When that door is slammed shut, the lights come up on an angry, hollow-eyed crowd in ’30s prole-wear, bearing signs that explain the image we’ve just seen. “Free Corn,” their placards demand of a government that’s evidently hoarding the stuff in silos. Other signs carry a less immediately clear message: “Down With Caius Martius.”

Shortly thereafter we meet Martius (Andrew Long), and he is, indeed, easy to dislike. A cocksure Roman general who has so little regard for his fellow citizens that he spends most of his time kicking them, Martius is a decorated war hero who will soon all-but-singlehandedly defeat a Volscian army in the city of Corioli, earning himself the honorific “Coriolanus.” In battle, he’s ferocious—especially toward rival general Tullus Aufidius (Keith Hamilton Cobb)—but in civilian life, he’s just an authoritarian jerk, unwilling to respect, acknowledge, or even tolerate the little people for whom he’s fighting.

Unfortunately for Coriolanus, his victories carry obligations. He’s expected to stand for the office of consul—barefoot and humble, beseeching public approval—and in a general election, he’s not well served by his predilection for sneering at all comers. Refusing to court voters because he believes his merits speak for themselves, Coriolanus quickly alienates the crowd, at which point Rome’s leaders, who’ve never much cared for what they see as his overweening pride, banish him. He then teams up with his sworn enemy Aufidius and comes back with an assault force. There’s more, but you get the general drift.

Coriolanus was the last of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and although its leading man travels the same basic arc as most tragic heroes, he’s substantially less inward-looking. Whereas Hamlet ties himself up in philosophical knots, and Macbeth agonizes to his wife until they’re both pretty delirious, Coriolanus keeps his thoughts to himself. The man just isn’t a talker, much less a soliloquizer, and if he’s not to come across as a completely blank slate, productions need to fill in his motivations from the sidelines. His war-obsessed mother, Volumnia (Sheila Allen, looking ready to devour her offspring on the spot), offers one avenue for doing so. The sardonic support of an ally named Agrippa (pixilated Ted van Griethuysen in a canny performance) offers another.

But the relationships that really define Coriolanus are the ones he forms on the battlefield, so director Michael Kahn concentrates this production’s energies there. The ’30s production design is dominated by a stagewide staircase that can morph when necessary into a slatted metal wall. The staging lingers over sequences in which the jackbooted title character goads his soldiers into suicidal missions, and lets us listen as politicians and other generals stoke him with praise before jeering or cheering crowds. The evening has a few too many ceremonial rehashes of his exploits, actually.

All of which serves as a prelude to the moment when the freshly banished Coriolanus throws himself on the mercy of Aufidius. Some post-Freudian productions turn them into fiercely competitive lovers, taking their cue from Aufidius’ statement that seeing Coriolanus “more dances my rapt heart than when I first my wedded mistress saw.” Kahn doesn’t quite go there, but he takes their joint infatuation with power and invests it with frankly sexual heat—Aufidius, shirtless and barefoot in leather pants; Coriolanus, shirtless and on his knees before the warrior he’s bested 12 times on the field. Never mind that these battle-scarred gladiators haven’t a scratch on their buff bodies (Cobb has such well-defined abs that his torso could double as a relief map)—they’re two of a kind, practically pawing each other in a ferocious display of testosterone and manly esteem.

Does that sound a little goofy? Well, it is, but it’s also diverting, at least for a while. Still, there’s a central drawback to concentrating so much on the modern-day battlefield: The firing of guns and the throwing of grenades can’t be replicated with much verisimilitude on stage unless one wants to deafen audiences, and anything short of verisimilitude looks slightly silly. Kahn has, in the past, found ingenious ways of depicting warfare—the slow-mo swordfights in his King John were real stunners—but he’s less successful here. And even though the battles aren’t knockouts, they’re jazzed up enough to make the domestic and political scenes back in Rome seem pallid by comparison.

Fortunately, those scenes are decently acted. Floyd King (who was battling laryngitis on opening night) and Eric Hoffmann have fun with the craven opportunism of the Tribunes they’re playing as political hacks (with hammer-and-sickle armbands providing a visual clue as to why they’re opposing a proto-fascist military man), and Elizabeth Long is nicely affecting as Coriolanus’ mousy wife. I’m not sure Kahn is wise to encourage her and Allen to court laughs by smacking the politicians with their beaded purses, but that bit of business is certainly of a piece with the witty sniping from the sidelines he has van Griethuysen doing. His Agrippa is a hoot, whether hurling epithets at politicos or lobbing epigrams at the mob.

The physical production is everything Shakespeare Theatre regulars have come to expect, from Walt Spangler’s heroic banners and morphing staircases to Robert Perry’s lighting, which projects imperial eagles on walls that seem to shatter into dust. It will occur to you after a while that much of this spectacle is essentially diversionary, pumping up sequences that don’t get you any closer to a central character who’s far too tight-lipped for his own theatrical good. But in the meantime, it provides plenty to look at.

Watching Paul Morella impersonate Clarence Darrow in I Cry Aloud: The Clarence Darrow Story, you’re apt to be struck by the hubris of that insouciant Ohio defense lawyer…or at any rate, by the hubris of the age he lived in.

Darrow practiced law from the 1880s to the 1930s, a half-century that seems to have believed its own press releases. He defended labor leaders, black families, teachers of evolution, and Leopold and Loeb (“those two rich boys that killed”), almost never stepping before a judge without some pundit calling the result the “Trial of the Century.”

His court arguments were filled with rhetoric suggesting that a direct line could—and should—be drawn between the decisions of ancient Greek tribunals and the decisions he was trying to influence. This conceit from a man who dabbled in jury tampering and who, for a time, sold his talents as an orator to the same big businesses that were exploiting the folks he most famously defended. Always, Darrow spoke of human history with the assurance of one who knew he was making it.

All of which tends to make him seem a larger-than-life figure in our own age. When people apply the word “historic” to rock concerts, they can get unaccustomed to taking the long view on humanity. Darrow, by contrast, rarely took any view but the long one, at least on the evidence offered in the solo evening at Gunston Theatre II that Jack Marshall and Terry Kester have fashioned from letters, court transcripts, and other source material. Even when Morella’s Darrow is waxing folksy (“They say the first half of our lives is ruined by our parents, and the second half by our children”), there’s a sense that he sees beyond the moment at hand. If his arguments in court are brisk and to the point, his summations, delivered in long, musical phrases, are transcendent, forward-looking oratorical riffs. They’re terrific speeches—soliloquies from the heart—and the American Century Theater has spliced them together with just enough explanatory material to make them comprehensible. The script, which was created in a few weeks (after ACT was denied production rights to David Rintel’s play Clarence Darrow), might be described as more efficient than artful. It concentrates principally on demystifying the central character rather than on making him theatrically compelling.

Still, there’s enough fire to Morella’s delivery to make up for any writerly shortcomings. The actor sidles up to the audience as he might to a jury, cajoling, seducing, and sharing confidences on behalf of clients. It’s a smart theatrical ploy, because the Darrow on stage is often in the position of defending his own conduct across the low, jury-box railings that separate him from theater patrons. His private life was filled with transgressions—against his wife, his socialist girlfriend, the judicial system, and many of the people who most relied on him—and it says something that his arguments in his own defense are every bit as eloquent as those he made in court. Perhaps that’s because Darrow’s oratorical flourishes, even when they lasted 11 hours, were mostly delivered impromptu, without notes. Or perhaps it’s simply because Morella brings a sense of improvisation to his performance. “Sometimes,” the character quips, “I don’t know what I think, until I hear what I have to say.” It’s easy to believe him.

It’s also easier to appreciate Darrow’s various gifts as thinker and orator than it is to cozy up to him. After two hours of soliloquizing, he becomes a vivid, ever-so-slightly-distant presence. His final summation—a poetry-quoting riff on love and justice that is among the most impassioned of the evening—leaves Morella’s Darrow with tears streaming down his face. It left me admiring and impressed, but dry-eyed. CP