He Was a Kind of Nothing

Election seasons are common times to stage Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s play about a Roman war hero (Dion Johnstone) who runs for consul despite his contempt for the common people.  Unversed in political matters, Coriolanus is undone by his rivals Brutus (Merritt Janson) and Sicinius (Stephen Spinella) and decides to ally himself with his former enemy, the Volscian commander Tullus Aufidius (Matthew Amendt).

Director Michael Sexton packs his production with plenty of contemporary references: there are red hats and Purell.  There are t-shirts with slogans like “You Can’t Have Capitalism Without Racism” and “Don’t Worry Be Yoncé.”  And there is a premature victory party filled with balloons and set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.”  But he rightly avoids drawing direct parallels to individual characters; while Coriolanus has much to say about the business of politics, I don’t think it can really provide much insight specifically on Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Black Lives Matter.

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s toughest characters to play.  An explosive meathead, he rarely paused for self-reflection and spends much of his time onstage demurring flattery and raging at both real and perceived foes.  Mr. Johnstone, whose muscles virtually burst out of his clothing, does a fine job in these challenging circumstances, often bearing a look of simultaneous confusion and suspicion.  Mr. Amendt, with the eyes of a loris, proves the hedonistic foil to his strictly-business partner, while Patrick Page is thoroughly seductive as Coriolanus’ stage manager Menenius Agrippa; with his unflappable, smoke-addled basso, he reminds one of the Southern politician who smiles to your face but undoes your civil liberties the moment you take your eyes off him.

Admittedly, there is something ultimately unfulfilling about this Coriolanus.  It moves too quickly, its topicality is a little too easy, and it lacks a cohesive driving force.  We may often smile with recognition, but we are rarely left feeling as if choices have been made for concrete reasons.  Instead, I left with the nagging sense that Mr. Sexton has not really cracked this play.

Coriolanus runs through November 20th at the Barrow Street Theatre.  27 Barrow Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 40 minutes.  One intermission.

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