Within the built-in limitations of Tina Packer’s Bare Bard approach to Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Coriolanus” — small cast, minimal production values, tiny stage — this first attempt by Shakespeare & Co. and Packer at what is a difficult but deeply rewarding play is something of a chamber-size but big-hearted triumph. The text, projected with tremendous energy and clarity almost in the laps of the audience, has enormous immediacy, with every word readily heard and understood (here, intimacy is an asset). The production is strong enough to make a theatergoer wonder why the play isn’t performed more often. A Royal Shakespeare Co. production with Ralph Fiennes is scheduled to play Brooklyn in September.
Packer, an alumna of the RSC, has welded her cast of experienced and inexperienced Shakespearean actors into a tightly controlled ensemble, many of the performers playing a legion of roles, constantly changing costume in full view of the audience. Miraculously, working out who’s who at any given time is not a problem. The acting area is strewn with rags and robes, others hanging from hooks against the rear wall. The minimal set evokes fifth-century Rome via pillars, a pediment and a series of pedestals. The scene and situation are set by an introduction spoken by cast member Lisa Wolpe, who then introduces herself and the characters she’ll be playing. The other actors follow suit and the play begins at full vigorous tilt and never lets up.
One reason why “Coriolanus” is comparatively rarely seen is because the title character is more of an antihero than a hero. Called Coriolanus after he’s had a great victory against the enemy Volscians at Corioli, he’s a mass of flaws. A Roman general who is primarily a man of war, he’s also a spoiled, arrogant, mother-dominated boy-man who scorns and has no understanding of the common people, who now have power of their own.
They in turn scorn him, eventually banishing him from Rome. In what looks like childish spite, he opts to become a traitor, join the Volscians and wage war on Rome. Before he can do so, his articulate mother, along with his wife and small son, prevail upon him to change his mind. The Volscians now see him as a traitor to them and kill him.
Coriolanus is a tough role. It’s also a richly rewarding one and Dan McCleary knows it. He looks just right: a burly baby-faced bully with an army haircut and boots. He’s the only man onstage who is beardless, which stresses his boyishness, and he performs with boundless energy. He’s not a great, world-class classical actor, but in the case of Coriolanus, a certain theatrical gaucheness does no harm.
As the Volscian general Aufidius, Jonathan Epstein reveals his experience as a long time S&Co. member, though his bared flesh is too white and unscarred for a senior warrior. The scene between him as Aufidius and McCleary as Coriolanus in which the latter offers his services to the Volscians has real sexual electricity.
Elizabeth Ingram’s experience pays off splendidly. She’s a deeply proud Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother, in a role that’s a gift to any actress. The effectiveness of Dennis Krausnick’s Menenius was undercut at the performance seen when he sometimes stumbled over words. Led by Wolpe in a wide variety of extremely vigorous, powerfully projected performances, the rest of the cast perform with skill, even if it’s sometimes roughhewn, as are the often rag-bag costumes.
Accompanying the production is a score composed by five Boston Symphony Orchestra Tanglewood Fellows. The results include ominous rumblings, martial fanfares, domestic chamber music, drum beats, bells and vocal ululation. Sometimes they add to the production, at other times they’re too reticent.
Packer has directed with probing intelligence. She uses those pedestals with real wit, often simply posing Coriolanus on one, physically head and shoulders above the mob. And in one comedic scene, she has a half-dozen characters on pedestals, posing as if statues in a museum as they are dusted and moved. The production’s many battle scenes often teeter on the edge of comedy, possibly intentionally as if Packer were spoofing staged battles by using tableaux and slow motion, though there’s no lack of clanging power in the sword fight between Coriolanus and Aufidius.
Packer also clearly delineates the play’s political elements as it points up the way an early essay in democracy could lead to excesses by the plebians just as the Roman patricians could be excessive in their attitudes and behavior. The play can’t help but resonate even more fully in a presidential election year.