There are reasons that “Coriolanus” is one of William Shakespeare’s least-produced plays. The poetry is scant, the politics reactionary, and the “hero” a loathsome jackal. As a result, chances to see the show are rare. So if you care about Shakespeare, you shouldn’t miss the fine production now at the Cohesion Theatre, for it turns the title character into a monster that you can’t take your eyes off.
Dave LaSalle seems too short to play Coriolanus, a killer so intimidating that everyone around him involuntarily backs away. But LaSalle is so ferocious in his bared teeth, flared nostrils, sneering lip, and widened eyes that members of the audience find themselves pressed against their seat backs to avoid him. Wearing a green army jacket over a blue Roman tunic, LaSalle prowls the stage like a junkyard dog off his chain.
Caius Martius was a real person, a Roman warrior whose slaughter of the enemy at Corioles in 493 won him the name Coriolanus. In Shakespeare’s version, Coriolanus is a killing machine not unlike Homer’s Achilles and also an aristocrat whose contempt for the common people is not unlike Mitt Romney’s. When he returns from Corioles as a war hero, Coriolanus’ fellow noblemen elect him as new consul. The election has to be ratified by the newly enfranchised commoners, but that should just be a formality as long as he mouths the expected platitudes.
The soldier tries his best, but like Romney, he can’t disguise his true feelings about the 47 percent. When the liberal politicians accuse him of tyrannical ambition, Coriolanus loses his composure and howls at them, “You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate as reek of the rotten fens, whose loves I prize as the dead carcasses of unburied men that do corrupt my air, I banish you!” Instead, it is he who is banished from Rome.
All this would work a lot better if Shakespeare had presented the conflict on a level playing field, but he didn’t. A confirmed monarchist, the playwright portrays the working class as a bunch of foolish children duped by their knavish liberal leaders into falsely accusing the admirable ruling class. Coriolanus’s fault, the dialogue clearly implies, lies not in his belief that the commoners are incapable of political power but in bluntly telling them so.
The play opens with Rome’s angry citizens demanding an equal share of the scarce corn during a drought, a perfectly reasonable demand. Menenius, a friendly aristocrat, rebuts their argument with a fable as fatuous as anything uttered by Polonius in “Hamlet.” Instead of running Menenius through with a sword as he did to Polonius, Shakespeare allows the allegory to implausibly carry the day. It’s an endorsement of paternalist government that will stick in the throat of any modern theatergoer.
One can usually overlook Shakespeare’s feudalist politics, because his plays are usually about something else. But in “Coriolanus” the politics are so front and center that they can’t be evaded. One of the show’s primary narrative motors is a lesson about the bad things that happen when you give the common folks too much power.
Fortunately, there are other narrative strands. Coriolanus, like Mozart in “Amadeus” or James Brown in “Get on Up,” is both a genius and a jerk. LaSalle’s terrific performance allows us to see not only Coriolanus’s brilliance on the battlefield but also his incompetence at basic human relationships.
Banished from Rome, he travels to the home of his archenemy Tullus Aufidius, played with nearly equal ferocity by Matt Ancarrow. In a dazzling set piece, LaSalle kneels on the stage with Ancarrow’s gleaming knife at the throat, describing how the two former enemies might join forces to wreak revenge on Rome. The two men have already spilled so much blood that the possibility of violence crackles in their dialogue.
Nearly as spellbinding is the scene where Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia (Nancy Linden) and his wife Valeria (Kelsey Painter) visit the camp that Coriolanus’ and Aufidius’ combined forces have pitched outside Rome’s gate. As the two visitors plead for their son and husband to not burn the city he once called home, you can see the “yes” and the “no” wrestling in the stretched and pinched skin of LaSalle’s face.
The production’s other standout performer is Painter, who sparkles not only as the weepy wife but also as the fiery leader of the protesters and as Aufidius’ clownish servant. She’s a tiny woman with waist-length hair, but her talent is huge and deserves a role of equal size.
The other performances are generally strong, especially Linden as Volumnia, Ancarrow at Aufidius, and Sean James as the liberal leader Brutus. Unfortunately, some dialogue gets lost due to loud background music, shuffling exits, and/or too-quiet delivery. Director Alicia Stanley maintains a brisk tempo, slowing down only for the impressive set pieces. Designer Casey Dutt has created a handsome city wall out of nailed-together wooden pallets. Stanley, however, misses Shakespeare’s key symbol by not using the same gate for Coriolanus’s banishment and return as for the doorways to Corioles and Aufidius’ home.
This is the first-ever production by the Cohesion Theatre Company, which is housed temporarily in the old Creative Alliance space on Conkling Street in Highlandtown. Stanley and her co-founder Brad Norris had worked together on Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II” at Spotlighter’s Theatre in June. Six members of the “Coriolanus” cast (including Painter and Ancarrow) appeared in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in September. Out of all these connections arises a most promising addition to the local theater scene.