Centuries before the time of the Caesars and empire, Rome was but one city state in the Italian Peninsula. In Shakespeare’s telling of the old story of Caius Martius Coriolanus, the Volsces, Rome’s dire enemies, were a people living south of Rome. According to legend, Martius distinguished himself in battle, vanquishing the Volsces and taking the town of Corioli. In honor of his valor, Martius was given the cognomen (a nickname) Coriolanus.
Borrowing from such Roman historians as Plutarch and Livy, Shakespeare presents a tragic hero who is a vessel of pent up fury, an anti-populist who scorns the commoners in favor of the elite. Coriolanus (David DeSantos, an actor of great energy) wants nothing to do with the honors bestowed on him. He bends to the demands with ill will, scorning the people and is eventually exiled for his haughty offenses. In his fury, Caius Martius teams up with his old enemy and bête noir, the Volcian leader Aufidius (Max Lawrence), to launch an attack on Rome, only relenting when his mother, Volumnia (Ellen Geer), his wife, Virgilia (Michelle Wicklas), his young son (Kien Toussaint on the evening I attended), and the matrons of Rome plead with him to abandon the siege. In Shakespeare’s version, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, the very flawed hero pays with his life.
The Theatricum Botanicum production is an extravaganza boasting a cast of fifty-eight that fill the stage with action. The acting is big and declamatory, de rigueur for an outdoor theatre. As treacherous populists, Alan Blumenfeld and Tim Halligan are appropriately slippery, and Melora Marshall as the leader of the Vestal Virgins, is, as always, a powerful presence. Franc Ross is commanding as the Roman general Cominius. The show builds in power throughout, and is especially affecting in the second half as it rockets to a searing climax and a brief, appropriate dénoument. An alert audience may detect some whiffs of present days politics wafting through the air.
Theatricum artistic director Ellen Geer co-directs with Melora Marshall. Original music and sound design for Coriolanus are by Marshall McDaniel, costume design is by Robert Merkel, lighting design is by Zach Moore, props are by Sydney Russell, and fight choreography is by Aaron Hendry and Dane Oliver. Jordann Zbylski assistant directs and Elna Kordijan is the production stage manager.
Coriolanus is not an easy show. It can challenge an audience with its language and unfamiliar story. I believe productions are fairly uncommon except at Shakespeare festivals that regularly march through the canon. Many ardent theatregoers, even those who have made their lives in the theatre, may not have seen the show or know anything about it. I pulled my copy of The Yale Shakespeare volume from my bookshelf and realized I had not opened it since I put my imprint on the inside decades ago. I have seen or acted in thirty-two Shakespearean productions. I can now claim thirty-three. Readers, grab this chance to experience this remarkable production. You may not have another chance.
Coriolanus runs through the summer at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga CA, and closes on September 23.