A new production from Theater for a New Audience raises expectations of classical style and conceptual boldness. Promises are made on both counts by helmer Karin Coonrod, who positions Shakespeare’s searing political drama “Coriolanus” in a futuristic landscape while maintaining its formal structure. But having made its austere physical statement, this stylized presentation has nothing further to say for itself. Christian Camargo appears to be phoning in his robotic Coriolanus while en route to a “Matrix” audition. And while the rest of the company stands detached from both the society of Rome and the badlands of Atrium, they inhabit no recognizable civilization whatsoever.
All eyes are directed vertically — up to the disinterested gods themselves — by giant slabs that serve as the walls of John Conklin’s monochromatic set. But the angry graffiti scrawled on their surfaces by rampaging Roman plebes are strictly for show, unmatched by any corresponding emotion from the mob.
Another vertical prompt cut off at the knees is the long, dark shadow cast on the wall by Coriolanus, a military hero who enrages the Roman riff-raff by his patrician arrogance and is banished for his refusal to suck up to the mob. (“Was ever man so proud as this Martius?” demands the plebeian tribune Sicinius Velutus.) Although his shadow looms lengthily and magisterial in Scott Zielinski’s stark lighting scheme, his character is anything but commanding in Comargo’s coolly mannered perf.
Lacking the presence of a formidable hero to shoulder its weight, the calculated brutalism of the show’s design (which extends to Anita Yavich’s zippered-up, battle-ready uniforms) overpowers the ensemble as a whole. Tiny as she is, Roberta Maxwell holds her head high as Coriolanus’s doting mother, Volumnia, who is both appalled and proud when her disgraced son revenges himself by joining the Volscian forces of Rome’s archenemy.
Bucking the general tone of ennui, Teagle F. Bougere bristles with energy and shows real spirit as Volscian general Aufidius, and Jonathan Fried provides much-needed authority (and impeccable diction) as articulate patrician Menenius Agrippa. But these individual perfs have no thematic focus in the show’s dispassionate context.
This is a sad case of missed opportunity, because fascism is very much in political fashion these days and what better play to address it than “Coriolanus”? The most class-conscious of Shakespeare’s dramas, it speaks to the ignorance of the mob and the tyranny of the elite, exposing both the flaws of an egalitarian political structure and the cruelties of autocratic rulers. Coriolanus’ dilemma is the agonizing paradox of an honest man who betrays his state because he won’t bend to the prevailing political winds and compromise his principles.
Taking these themes out of Shakespeareland might, indeed, give them broader political application. But Coonrad’s mannered approach — give the show a modernistic gloss and tell everybody to act cool — isn’t the way to go.