Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’: An ancient class struggle epic with modern topicality
From left, William Maizel, Todd Kliewer, Tim Halligan, Christopher Wallinger, Alan Blumenfled, Brian Patrick McGowan, Lawrence Sonderling and Michael Hoag / Ian Flanders

LOS ANGELES—Calendar shmalendar: The way this critic knows summer has arrived is by attending the premiere of Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s repertory season at its airy Topanga Canyon amphitheater. A joyous annual ritual for me is making the trek out to this woodsy nook north of Malibu where WGTB extends the conventional notion of the stage.

Audiences are familiar with theatrical terms such as “the fourth wall” and “theater in the round.” But ensconced on a hillside amidst a forest, WGTB gives us what could be called “three dimensional theater.” This year’s exceptional opening production, William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, is an excellent case in point. The tragedy’s mise-en-scène is barely constrained to the stage per se, as the ample-sized company makes full use of the slopes behind the boards and the surrounding sylvan glade. The troupers troop up and down the aisles, gather and cavort behind the bleacher seats and so on, making full use of the Topanga landscape. Corio’s choreo gives new meaning to Shakespeare’s dictum in As You Like It that “all the world’s a stage.”

Especially spellbinding are the mob and battle scenes, co-directed with panache by Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall (who also co-star as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia and Senator Menenius Agrippa). Today’s jaded audiences are used to CGI and other special FX rendering virtual reality, but this live presentation of Coriolanus, with throngs of thespians clad in togas and sandals duly dueling is extremely exciting. With more actors than this math-challenged reviewer could count, WGTB vividly brings to life fights to the death in ancient Rome. (By the way, Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 directorial debut is a superb screen version of Coriolanus, starring Fiennes in the title role.)

Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s colossal class struggle extravaganza, pitting plebeians against patricians. Caius Marcius (David De Santos) is a military leader whose victories on behalf of the Roman Empire have earned him the exalted title of “Coriolanus.” Afflicted by hubris—that bugbear of Greek tragedies—the general seeks to become Rome’s consul, a state title similar to that of a 21st-century prime minister or president.

The man who would be consul, however, is insensitive to the needs and demands of the plebes, and the commoners rise up to oppose this false prophet of the proletariat. The masses are roused by the people’s tribunes, including that stage stalwart known for his elegant, eloquent elocution, Alan Blumenfeld, who plays Sicinius Velutus stirring up rebellion and rabble. Call it “democracy.”

Other standouts in the cast of “thousands” (or so it seems as they swarm WGTB’s stage and forest primeval) include Max Lawrence as Tullus Aufidius, general of the army of the Volscians, a rival tribe in Italy which clashed with the Romans. Last summer, Lawrence, an eight-season member of WGTB’s company, also delivered a heartbreaking performance as Boxer, the Stakhanovite steed exploited by a revolution betrayed in the Theatricum’s stellar stage adaptation of George Orwell’s anti-Stalinist classic Animal Farm. This summer Max co-stars in an epic as a sort of “Lawrence of Volscia.”

Ellen Geer and David DeSantos / Ian Flanders

As Volumnia, Ellen Geer is as flowery as she is—to use a politically incorrect term—“bitchy,” egging her son Coriolanus on. De Santos portrays this martial mommy’s boy as suffering from inner turmoil: Perhaps a mother complex compelled him on to a life of conquest and a quest to become consul in order to compensate. (Paging Dr. Freud!)

As is this shapeshifting actor’s wont, Melora Marshall once again has a gender-bending role as the historical Senator Menenius Agrippa, who was also a Roman consul and in real life male. But in 2018, who’s really keeping track anymore? Besides, WGTB has long been noted for its bold nontraditional casting that has, for example, propelled nonwhite actors into lead roles once the sole domain of Caucasians.

So from 491 BCE to 2018, what does Coriolanus mean? I’m not sure what Shakespeare had in mind about Elizabethan England under the monarchy, but certain truths are eternal throughout the ages. As the directors’ note states in WGTB’s program: “Coriolanus cries out to be seen this season!” Why? Could it possibly be that Trump is a modern-day false voice of the people, the billionaire wolf in populist clothing? The idea that this self-obsessed, petulant creature with his affluenza-addled mind gives a damn about America’s working class defies credulity. It’s coincidental incidental intelligence to note that both figures have references to the nether ends in their names: Coriolanus and Trump. History is a practical joker and it remains to be seen if conman Consul Donald will befall the same cruel fate as Coriolanus does.

In the first act the company’s timing was occasionally off, but by Act II they were off and flying into the wild blue yonder. Minor mistakes are easily forgivable as the opening night glitches of a season that extends through September and includes Arthur Miller’s Blacklist/McCarthyism parable The Crucible, Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden, William DuBois’s Caribbean slave revolt saga Haiti, and WGTB’s Shakespearean perennial and favorite of children of all ages, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My own summer nights’ dream is to enjoy all of these gems under the stars, seeing theater in the great outdoors the way the Greeks intended viewers to. And with Coriolanus WGTB is off to a great start.

Coriolanus plays in repertory through Sept. 23 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, Calif. 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310) 455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.

L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting “Marx @ 200: The Marxist Movie Series,” further information here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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