SALT LAKE CITY — As one of the lesser produced of Shakespeare’s works, it might be assumed that Coriolanus doesn’t stand up to the grandeur of theme and language found in the more famous titular characters of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear. I disagree. Coriolanus provides complex characters, relationships, emotions, and political intrigue, told in equally visceral poetic text. New World Shakespeare Company has provided a rare treat with this production, highlighting the endless relevance of a 400-year-old text about a general from 500 B.C. Their considered choices about gendered casting and contemporary costumes shine a light in the dark places of our new world and our old hearts.
I’d like to provide a more than usual plot summary here, as the first few scenes of an unfamiliar Shakespeare play can be overwhelming to the ear and mind. The play opens on a bubbling riot in the streets of Rome. Serious food shortages caused by an ongoing war with the Volscians and unfair distribution to the wealthy, have brought citizens to the streets demanding food and justice. The good-hearted patrician (city manager-type) Menius tries to calm the protesters. Arriving on the scene, the main character, General Caius Marcius, berates the people from complaining about being hungry when they aren’t brave enough to fight in defense of their city. The people disperse, but two tribunes (think, House of Representatives), hatch a plot to ensure that the proud, and possibly tyrannical, Marcius will never be elected as consul (think, president). Marcius is then called back to a battle in the town of Coroli where he anticipates confronting Aufidius, a worthy opponent and the leader of the Volscians. Rome is victorious, but Marcius and Aufidius haven’t settled their score. Back home, Marcius is declared the hero of the war, savior of Rome, and is given the surname Coriolanus to be remembered by. Marcius is deeply uncomfortable with praise or being put on display. And though everyone seems to think him a shoe-in for the job, he resists the idea of running for consul. He has no respect for politics, less than none for “the people” and can’t stomach the idea of pandering to anyone. Armed with this information, get ready to let the battle begin.
The story is complex, but everyone really should see it! I know people who are hesitant about Shakespeare, thinking it will be dry or too difficult to follow, but directors Connor Thompson and Sierra Trinchet have provided a concise cutting of the script that keeps the action coming. The casts is masterful in handling the text, with strong voices, emotions, and relationships that are consistently clear and articulate. Will you linguistically process every line they speak? Probably not, but you will feel every line. You will know that each character knows exactly what they are saying.
Because of the direction and the line delivery from the actors, I never had to wonder how deeply devoted Jon Turner and Liza Shoell were as Coriolanus’s respective father and wife. Every emotional conflict is powerfully written on Coriolanus’s face as Eva TerraNova in the title role unfalteringly stands by her convictions. The gender flip of Coriolanus and her passionate rival Aulfidios, played by Wendy Dang, is intriguing and provocative. Shakespeare’s text is suggestive of a homoerotic connection within their power struggle, and the choice to play both characters as lesbians in their marriage relationships only strengthens the reckless bond that drives them together. Turner gives a powerful performance as Coriolanus’s father Agrippa, (rather than the text’s original Volumnia, the general’s mother). And this too gives the audience much to consider as it is tender to see a father encouraging and loving his powerful daughter. Indeed, each cast member brings exceptional drive and passion to their performance.
These performances shine brightly against an utterly empty black box set, with nothing more than a few acting blocks to fill the space. I have great respect for using minimal production values, especially when costumes and props are thoughtfully chosen and consistently utilized throughout the show. However, in a production that is otherwise packed with galloping dialogue, the slowness of the lighting and scene changes became a real drag filled with silence. A single 5-10 second scene transition does not break a show, but when transitions of this length happen every few minutes, it gets tedious for as the audience to wait in silence for a three-second light fade, the actors to exit the stage, another actor to enter in darkness to move or rearrange an acting block, that person to exit, and the next group of actors to enter and arrange themselves, and then the slow light fade-in. .
These frequent slow scene changes became an unfortunate distraction from the urgently acted, high-stakes scenes, especially when the simple solution—having an actor already on stage adjust the acting block and reducing the light cue time to one-second—would be so easy to implement. I urge New World Shakespearean Company to please use a 20-minute pre- or post- show call time to fix this so I can love Coriolanus as much as the show deserves. If that is not possible, then using the beautiful pre- and post-show music could cover the transitions.
In the program, Trinchet and Thompson noted that the themes of Coriolanus could be “torn right from our contemporary headlines,” and I enthusiastically agree. War, revolution, and political upheaval are all around us. But what makes this play matter is that, like ourselves, these themes and characters resist black and white classification. There are no pure heroes and no complete villains. These are humans in broken human-made systems, trying and failing, and doing what they can, and doing what they shouldn’t, just like you and me. Coriolanus may have been written 400 years ago and set 2500 hundred years ago, but New World Shakespeare Company’s production shows that in any time period, people are remarkably similar.