Darkness, tragedy, fear, and death–while these themes limn current headlines, they are also prominent in the latest Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) production, Willliam Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.” Based on the life of Caius Marcius, who acquired the moniker “Coriolanus” after a particular dominant victory during Roman times, this late-career tragedy is an excellent choice for this year’s election cycle. Bonnie Monte, Artistic Director of STNJ, acknowledged this freely to the knowing, rueful laughter of the audience on Opening Night and, truthfully, the audience had an idea of what might lie ahead from the steely hues and stuffed shirts of Dick Block’s industrial-inspired set. The talking heads were yet to come. Tristan Raine’s costumes were an amalgam of influences ranging from 20th century business attire to urban war to the tatters of the plebeians, and the sense of class and classical reigned supreme.
Brian Crowe’s expert direction gives us a story that starts with great aspirations–a general and war hero is encouraged to go into politics—does anyone remember George Washington? Dwight David Eisenhower? Colin Powell?—and he accepts, perhaps thinking “I’ve been wounded in the service of my country–how hard could an office job be?” When the actual governing needs to happen, Coriolanus finds that the people do not respond as well to his management style as did his army, and the slow unraveling of a hitherto life and storied career begin.
Greg Derelian’s Coriolanus is imposing. He is Mars incarnate, yet he frequently reveals the juvenile inside. Perhaps he went to war too soon, growing up physically too fast and burying the development of the adult. STNJ favorites include Bruce Cromer as Menenius and Raphael Nash Thompson as Cominius, Clark Scott Carmichael as Titus Lartius, Coriolanus’ right hand man, and the Tribunes Junius Brutus (John Ahlin) and Sicinius Velutus (Corey Tasmania). The Tribunes are the power couple who manipulates the media like it’s Silly Putty and plan for the moment, though the long-game eludes them.
Michael Schantz’s Aufidius is classic Shakespeare–a general who is a combination of bravado and self-questioning and who couldn’t best Coriolanus at hand-to-hand combat, but managed a perfect “what’s it all about, Aufie?” demise for our hero, best of frenemies to the end.
It is Jacqueline Antaramian as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother and greatest influence, whom I keep remembering. Her performance is deep, broad, and nuanced, and I would love to see this show again toward the end of the run to see how the richness evolves. Shakespeare wrote the greatest speeches in this play for Volumnia and, much as the opera Aida should be called “Amneris,” this story is about Volumnia’s nobility of spirit and depth of patriotism. Would that she had been able to serve. It begs the question, had Coriolanus listened to her advice, might he have lived to see his grandchildren, rather than leaving his wife a widow and his young son fatherless?
Now is the time to get your tickets. Ms. Monte pointed out that Coriolanus is not often performed and was last done by STNJ. “Coriolanus” runs in Madison NJ through July 24. For more information, visit www.shakespearenj.org