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One That Hath Always Loved the People

Red Bull Theater, Barrow Street Theatre, New York City, New York
Wednesday, November 2, 2016, C–3&5 (center, thrust-stage theater)
Directed by Michael Sexton

Volumnia, short gray hair, white jacket blouse, gray pants, grasps Martius's arms as she looks up at him and he, in gray suit, down sheepishly at her.
"Do your will," Volumnia (Lisa Harrow) tells her son, Martius Coriolanus (Dion Johnstone) in the Red Bull Theater production of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City. She doesn't mean it, and he knows it, but he will anyway. Photo courtesey of Red Bull Theater.

Patrick Page playing Prospero shared the Number One spot on's Top 20 Shakespeareances of 2016, which I posted two weeks ago on New Year’s Eve. It was in part because of Page’s performance in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's (STC) staging of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest last summer that we decided to see him in Red Bull Theater's production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in New York this past fall. More intriguing, however, was that he was playing Menenius, this after we saw him play the title character in a 2013 STC production; we wondered how he would move from Caius Martius Coriolanus to that character’s father figure and mentor Menenius Agrippa three years later.

Page confidently makes that leap with supreme artistry. In fact, I could write this entire review on Page playing Menenius as a Dixie politician. Not only was this the highlight of this intimate, bare-stage but overly busy production at the Barrow Street Theatre (though Page was not alone in giving a sterling performance), his portrayal drew out the many shades of this fascinating character who is the antithesis to the bull-in-a-china-shop Martius (played here by Dion Johnstone) and, thus, foil as a political archetype.

Naturally, we can apply such political archetypes to today’s all-too-real political stages across the globe. This production’s director, Michael Sexton, sets his Coriolanus in “Rome, 493 BCE. Here, Now,” and Costume Designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter dresses it in modern clothes, from the soldiers’ camouflage battle uniforms to the patricians’ suit jackets and boring ties (and suspenders for Menenius) and the women’s casual slacks and blouses. After the nomination of Martius to serve as consul, red balloons drop and Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" plays, evoking the Clinton regime. However, Martius comes off more like Trump as he pretends to play along with the plebeians he actually disdains, and then wipes his hands with an antiseptic wipe.

That’s the gorgeous conundrum of Coriolanus. Updating this Jacobean play about the early days of the Rome Republic to modern issues doesn’t automatically mean we can apply Shakespeare’s text as a barometer of right or wrong, good or evil, or even success or failure in government. Shakespeare is deliberately obtuse with the political leanings and outcomes of Coriolanus, a play that has been staged by both fascists and communists as testaments to their specific ideological pursuits despite their ideals being at the two opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Nowhere is this point more effectively driven home than in Page’s portrayal of Menenius as a Southern U.S. politician, a Mitch McConnell attitude wrapped in a Bill Clinton personality. Some of Page’s mannerisms recall Lyndon Johnson—pulling back his suit jacket to hitch up his pants as he readies himself to deliver the tale of the belly—as do his sincere conviction that peace and political order is the way to Rome's prosperity despite his hawkish admiration for Martius’s military feats. Menenius also concertedly promotes Martius, a man who so unrelentingly hates the lower classes, to be consul, and yet those commoners laud Menenius upon his first entrance as “Worthy Menenius Agrippa, one that hath always loved the people.”

Page’s Menenius is the consummate politician. He disarms the electorate with storytelling, he serves as negotiator between the tribunes representing the commoners and Martius when the latter’s consulship election goes awry, and he counsels Martius on how to present himself to win the people’s affections. In the chaos that comes when the tribunes goad Martius into a temper tantrum that ultimately leads to his banishment, Page is the one to watch in this volatile scene as his Menenius keeps one encouraging coach’s eye on Martius and one wary politician’s eye on the tribunes and their rabble. There is no question that his ideological allegiance lies with the patricians, and in private he expresses the same disdain for the plebeians that Martius holds. Yet, though we see this, Page even gets us to believe that worthy Menenius hath always loved the people.

This comes courtesy of Page’s astute attention to the particulars in Shakespeare’s text and working them into his performance as second-nature elements of his character. Page is such a physical actor, which is what made his Coriolanus a powerful centerpiece of the STC production in 2013. Nevertheless, it’s Page’s intelligence that matters most in his performances, which we saw in his exquisite portrayal of Prospero a couple months before seeing his Menenius. Playing Menenius as a Dixie politician is a path rife with artistic potholes that can leave a character stumbling into cliché and triviality. With Page playing it this way, however, it becomes an all-encompassing presentation of the character as Shakespeare wrote him.

Nevertheless, Director Sexton reconstructs the character’s final moments in the play in a way that deviates from Shakespeare’s intentions and the truth of Page's portrayal. As Martius, now commander of the Volscians, readies his invasion of Rome in revenge for the city’s treatment of him, Menenius agrees to serve as an emisarry, giving in to the pleas of the two tribunes. Sexton has that moment come when one of the tribunes, a pregnant Junius Brutus (Merritt Janson), takes his hand and places it on her belly. As Menenius agrees to the task, he suddenly becomes overconfident: “I think he’ll hear me,” he says, and then suggests that Martius had not yet dined when Comininius met with him—“When we have stuffed these pipes and these conveyences of our blood with wine and feeding, we have suppler souls”—and determines that a good lunch will pave his way to success. You could see this as the downward slope of a character arc that started in the first scene with Menenius’s parable of the stomach (especially in tandem with the hand-on-pregnant-belly moment). Menenius miscalculates (really, he always has when it comes to Martius), but it's his arrogant behavior toward the Volscian guards and, after Martius turns him away, his bitter diatribe aimed at the guards but meant for the world in general that are the real departures from his political nature. Shakespeare gives Menenius these character lapses, but the playwright hasn't finished the character's arc.

Some directors, though, decide he should have. A couple I've seen have taken Menenius's exiting line, “He that hath a will to die by himself fears it not from another,” to justify showing him taking his own life. Sexton doesn’t kill him off, but he does have Menenius return in what looks to be a drunken stupor, a man who has lost his way, stumble onto the stage in juxtaposition with Martius’s mother, Volumnia (Lisa Harrow), in a psychological stupor of her own. It’s a dramatic, visual juxtaposition. But it’s not Menanius’s real ending, nor that of any "consummate politician," a la Mitch McConnell or Bill Clinton. Shakespeare gives Menenius one more scene with the tribune Sicinius Velutus (Stephen Spinella) when they learn that Martius’s mother and wife had succeeded in convincing Martius to spare Rome. “You have prayed well today,” Menenius tells Sicinius. “This morning for ten thousand of your throats I’d not have given a doit. Hark, how they joy!” referring to the shouts and music off stage. Menenius, ever the astute politician, rebounds and finds his place at the head of the next political wave. It’s not quite as visually dramatic as Sexton’s choice, but it’s more thematically true, and accurate to our times, too.

So is Johnstone's spare portrayal of Martius, a stoic athlete moving with great dignity borne of supreme arrogance. We can condemn his hautiness, but we have to admire his brutal honesty and his total comfort with being exactly who he is, along with his total discomfort with being anything else—like, say, a smooth-talking politician. Unfortunately, we lose a big window into this character with Sexton’s cutting out entirely the scene in which he parts from his family and into banishment; it’s a greater loss because we lose one more scene between him and his wife, Virgilia (Rebecca S’manga Frank).

Other than Page’s Menenius, the women achieve the greatest impact in this Coriolanus. While Spinella plays Sicinius as a shrill politician given to frantic platitudes and behavior (perhaps he represents the Bernie Sanders' type in this production), Janson’s Junius is the more effective of the two tribunes. Her steady manner and logical thought processes prove more influential, both to the crowd of commoners on the stage and the audience in the seats. Harrow is a mighty force as Volumnia, as written, but rather than treating Martius as her little boy, she regards him as a man whom she thought she raised to be smarter and more holistically Roman. In Volumnia’s great speech of supplication to the silent Martius in the Volscian camp, actresses have used many different lines to deliver the knock-out blow. Harrow lands hers at the very end: after “So we will home to Rome, and die among our neighbors,” after “this fellow had a Volscian to his mother,” and after “his child like him by chance.” After all that, Harrow’s Volumnia says with dismissive impatience, “Yet give us our dispatch: I am hushed until our city be afire, and then I’ll speak a little.” For Martius, this is so mom: “Do as thou list” and “do your will” she says in exasperation back when she’s brow-beating him about his behavior in the consul campaign. Now, he takes her hand and stares at her a moment before saying the only thing he can think in this moment: “O mother, mother!” Her victory is short-lived, however; five lines later Martius says, “But for your son, believe it, O believe it, most dangerously you have with him prevailed, if not most mortal to him.” Harrow in the instant is shaken, her eyes taking in these words and realizing their truth. She remains in that stupor (and, in the play, never says another word) to the end, even during her return in triumph to Rome.

Menenius waves with right hand, wearing dark gray suit, white shirt, muted red tie, and black suspenders; Comininius in army service uniform and beret with a red sash holds up Coriolanus's right arm; Coriolanus behind podium in army service uniform, green beret, and red sash; Volumnia, holding up her son's left hand, in breay jacket, blouse, and pants; Young Martius in camoflauge pants and fatigue t-shirt waves to side; Virgilia behind her in simple tan blouse and skirt with white long coat over her shoulders, waving.
Martius Coriolanus (Dion Johnstone, center) is elected consul of Rome—at least for a short while—in the Red Bull Theater production of William Shakespeare's political drama Coriolanus at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City. Celebrating with him are, from left, Menenius (Patrick Page), Comininius (Aaron Krohn), Volumnia (Lisa Harrow), Young Martius (Olivia Reis), and Virgilia (Rebecca S'manga Frank). Photo courtesy of Red Bull Theater.

This production’s most unexpected portrayal is that of Frank as Virgilia. The timid woman of the text, ever-fearful of Martius’s care, doesn’t easily reconcile with the wife of a warrior who has Volumnia as a mother. Productions I’ve seen either leave her mousy and cowed by her mother-in-law or turn her into a passive-aggressive schemer. Some, to give the part more meat, add a wordless scene of the couple sharing a domestic moment, and the 2013 Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival production incorporated Lady Percy’s speech from Henry IV, Part 1. Frank, however, gets one brief but key extratextual moment: when she makes her first entrance, she assumes a meditative yoga pose and maintains it for the duration of her scene with Volumnia and their neighbor, Valeria (Christina Pumariega) berating her to get out of the house. “I’ll not over the threshold till my lord return from the wars,” Virgilia insists, and though she gives no solid reason in the text, her pose and demeanor explain her purposes in this staging. As Volumnia and Valeria prattle on, Virgilia emerges as the stronger among the three women, and in the women’s confrontation with the tribunes after Martius’s banishment, Virgilia is much more intensely (and scarily) vehement than Volumnia.

Earlier, upon Martius’s return from the wars, Johnstone’s Martius speaks casually with his mom, but to his wife he kneels and shares a tender kiss: “My gracious silence, hail,” he almost whispers to her. “Wouldst thou have laughed had I come coffined home, that weep’st to see me triumph?” and the gently joking manner in which Johnstone delivers this line is not dismissive of her tears, as I’ve always seen it staged, but as appreciative of her love for him. This Martius and Virgilia share a deep bond of interlocking strengths, his of body and skills, hers of temperament and soul. Perhaps that’s the real lesson here: Virgilia is absent during the sequences of Martius’s disputed election to consul, his mother's coaching him to be more politic, and the resulting turmoil that leads to his banishment. Temperament and soul is what’s missing from the political theater in the real world today, too.

Eric Minton
January 13, 2017

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