Sitting in the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, you know you’re in for one kickass evening of theater the minute Brandon Carter, the American Shakespeare Center’s charismatic artistic director, steps out during the pre-show with his take on The Coup’s hip-hop classic, “The Guillotine.” Bristling with bitterness and bile, the rap speaks for a revolution from the ground up, an attitude that sets the tone for one of Shakespeare’s edgiest and most neglected classics, Coriolanus. (Carter’s rendition of Edwin Starr’s Vietnam-era classic “War” at intermission, with its thrilling call-and-response, provides a great counterpoint to the action as well.)
Among the Bard’s later tragedies, Coriolanus is set in the raw, early days of the Roman Republic, and features one of his most unsympathetic tragic heroes, Caius Martius. A war hero who earns the title Coriolanus after a victory at a nearby town, the Patrician warrior has nothing but contempt for the plebeian civilians whose rights he (in theory, at least) fights for every time he picks up his shield. Groomed for military success by his steely-souled mother, Volumnia, he has no sooner achieved his finest hour on the field than he is confronted by a mob of plebeians demanding that he show them a microgram of respect. He categorically refuses, and he is promptly exiled from Rome. His martial sense of honor, stung by the mob’s disrespect, drives him to flee into the arms of his erstwhile enemy, Aufidius. In the ancient world, it seems, there was no enemy; only a Plan B. Out of admiration for Aufidius’ bravery, Coriolanus offers his services, and his heart, to Rome’s direst enemy and sets about to lay siege to the city that rejected him.
This production at ASC stands out for many reasons, not least the rousing crowd scenes, where the cast spreads throughout the theater and makes you a participant in rallies at the Roman Forum. Armed with cudgels, the mob makes crystal clear its menace as you are surrounded by thugs, waiting for the riots to begin. This company has clearly grown comfortable working together, and this frees them to add a dangerous edge to scenes so raw you’re not sure where the next blow will come from.
Alexis Baigue, in the title role, is every inch the warrior. His refusal to budge, and his ancient sense of honor—extending so far as to ally himself with the man he nearly murdered not long before—are of a piece. His obliviousness to the chaos and misery he has caused chills the house every time he steps out. As Volumnia, his mother, Angela Iannone tops her other performances in the fall repertory—no mean feat, given her track record in the other shows here. The fount and cause of Coriolanus’ contempt, she realizes only too late the monster she has created; and her desperate plea for mercy at Coriolanus’ feet, as his invasion of Rome is afoot, is heartstoppingly, heartbreakingly vivid. Coriolanus is a Gibraltar of her own making, and she has the unenviable task of chiseling away, or, failing in that, melting away the impregnable rock that is her son. (Does it take? You really need to see this for yourself!)
Perhaps the most timely touch here is the pairing of Matthew Henerson and Nic Sanchez as the newly elected Plebeian Tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sicinius. They are bluster incarnate and, clearly jealous of Coriolanus, stir up deadly hatred against Rome’s greatest warrior, a feat they perform for no other reason than to keep their numbers up in the polls. Their fecklessness, and their inability to deal with the crisis when Coriolanus invades Rome, is a cautionary tale for our times. If only the Freedom Caucus bothered to study their Shakespeare, and to learn from the annals of history the high price you pay when you are good for nothing but obstruction and deceit.
As with his other political plays, Shakespeare regularly leavens the light with the dark, beginning with Aidan O’Reilly as Coriolanus’ mentor and lover, Menenius. His glib account of the body parts in revolt against the belly (a fun take on the Patrician vs. Plebeian struggle) is the ultimate tension-breaker. Ditto the plebes’ sheepish admission, later on, that they might have exiled Coriolanus too hastily. The company’s talents are so assured, and their knowledge of the language so intimate, that they can take a seeming throw-away line and turn it into a perfectly timed gag, as the play rolls on toward its violent denouement.
Fully recovered from the crises of years past, the American Shakespeare Center has developed a truly explosive, emotionally rich ensemble. Any effort made to come to Staunton to see these artists at work is well worth it.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one intermission.
Coriolanus plays through November 18, 2023, in repertory with Hamlet (through November 18) and Much Ado About Nothing (through November 19) presented by American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 South Market Street, Staunton, VA. For tickets ($33–$65), call the box office at (540) 851-3400, or purchase them online.
Credits for Coriolanus are in ASC’s digital program for fall 2023, which is online here.
COVID Safety: American Shakespeare Center strongly encourages patrons to mask when possible. ASC’s complete COVID-19 Safety Visitor’s Guide is here.