Circle of Jerks
Quick, quote a famous line from Shakespeare's Coriolanus. Don't worry. Nobody can. Among the Bard's works, this five-act tragedy is one of the least quotable, and it is performed less often even than Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens. Probably for good reason.
This hasn't stopped the Kitchen Dog Theater company from attempting it, however. In their boisterous, sweaty, but often unintelligible production, they squeeze all five acts into three grueling hours. And they work their all-male cast of nine like Trojans--or, in this case, ancient Romans--having them play all the roles, including the women's parts.
Under the direction of Matthew Earnest, this Coriolanus is theater as exhausting marathon race, with the team of young, bare-chested actors constantly running up, down and around the 360-degree performance space, which includes a huge brown pit in the middle. "Looks like they'll be doing some mud wrestling," quipped one lady in the audience. Well, not quite. But it wouldn't have been out of place. Besides running hundreds of laps in and around the pit, these guys wrestled each other with hands, grappling hooks, poles, knives and ropes, every move carefully, almost delicately choreographed. They're half-nekkid Jets and Sharks without the cool music and pretty young lovers.
Nobody's pretty in Coriolanus. There's no hero to root for, no romance to tug the heartstrings, no poetic soliloquies in moonlight. This is a word-bloated play about killing. The main character, Caius Martius, is a Roman military legend, a veteran of 30 battles with two dozen wounds to prove it. As the play begins, he leads the assault on and massive destruction of the city of Corioles, a victory so stupendous he's awarded the surname Coriolanus.
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Back in Rome, he's General Schwartzkopf in a toga, beloved by the hoi polloi and hailed by the Senate, which wants him as a member. He's immediately elected to the office of consul but disappoints the voting public when he won't play the war hero. A big scene has the rabble demanding that he bare his torso to show off his wounds, which he refuses to do (the drama of this bit gets lost in the Kitchen Dog version, where everyone, including Coriolanus, is bare from the waist up all the time).
Turns out Coriolanus is a rotten consul. He doesn't like the trappings of political office, all the speechifying and wearing of fancy white robes. He has low regard for the lower classes, whom he calls "scabs." He would rather go back to what he does best: whacking people on the battlefield.
Like Hamlet, Coriolanus is the product of an overbearing mother, Volumnia (what a name!), who's part Gertrude, part Lady Macbeth. She has made her son the emotionless terminator that he is and has stage-managed his military career with the evilest of intentions. Likewise, Coriolanus is fixated on her, so much so that whenever she's around, he ignores his poor little wife, Virgilia, and their son. Early in the play, it's obvious that the boy is following in his father's blood-soaked footsteps. A handmaiden recounts a scene in which the son of Coriolanus chases and catches a butterfly, playfully setting it free and catching it again, until finally he "did so set his teeth and tear it." Grandma thinks it's funny and remarks that the boy is just like his father.
The play is full of chilling images like that. Coriolanus himself is a heartless creep, disturbed and disturbing, an arrogant warrior without conscience, scarred by war and warped by a raging Oedipus complex.
Jump cut to Act 5, where Coriolanus is run out of town because he won't be Superman for the plebes. Eager to get back in the warring business, he joins forces with his former enemy, the Volsces, and plots an assault on Rome. But when he gets to the city walls, who's there waiting to stop him? Mommy, of course, who guilt-trips him out of conquering his home turf. Still craving her approval, he backs down and meets his fate at the hands of a lynch mob. Volumnia simply turns and walks away. So much for mother love.
Coriolanus was written around 1608, the last of Shakespeare's tragedies. It was derived from a popular translation of Plutarch's Lives, the same source Shakespeare used for Julius Caesar. That must have been a bum year for the playwright. Just the season before he'd scored hits with Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, two other plays with villains for main characters but at least some oomph to their plots and some zing in the dialogue. Coriolanus reads like a play penned by a tired writer serving out the last contractual obligation of a three-script deal. The lead character doesn't even say much. The weightiest speeches in Coriolanus are delivered by an old senator named Menenius (a tedious character from word one) and an angry tribune named Sicinius who hates Coriolanus with a white-hot zeal.
So much for the play. And onto the production, which takes a work already soaked in testosterone and buries it under even more layers of masculine hoo-ha. Director Earnest has let himself go a little too hog-wild showing off his troupe of manly men. They stomp their bare feet and drum on washtubs. They jump and holler and scrum like rugby players. It's an Iron John gathering in iambic pentameter.
The actors remain constantly in motion, pounding the floor like a herd of buffalo. And they simultaneously shout dialogue at the top of their lungs. Given the unforgiving acoustics of the cavernous Heldt/Hall Theater at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, this is especially hard on the audience's ears. In the cacophony (they even use a bullhorn at one point), the lines sound like "BLAH BLAH BLAH prithee! BLAH BLAH BLAH whither!" They could be speaking Polish for all we know.
When they are clearly audible, unfortunately, is during the long, stultifying speeches about Roman politics. Shakespearean filibusters are no more entertaining than modern ones on C-SPAN, especially when you're not quite sure who's talking.
The use of just nine actors to play all the roles is a theatrical conceit that doesn't work here. Dressed nearly identically in beige muslin skirts, the actors are also identically pale-skinned (not just white, but so white they're nearly translucent). Several of them have identically shaved heads. Only two stand out in the crowd, and that's because one has a black beard and one looks a lot like Jerry Seinfeld.
Costume designer Patrick Johnson doesn't help by using only scant suggestions of character changes, a random sleeve here, a neckpiece there. It's not even clear at first who's playing Coriolanus' mother and wife, as the two actors (Trae Hicks, Daniel McDonald) do little to feminize their silhouettes and nothing much to change their vocal textures when they're women.
Dan Day makes no special impression as Coriolanus. He doesn't carry himself much like a warrior. More like a weary CPA rushing through Love Field to catch the last Southwest flight to Houston.
Mark Farr is good as Sicinius, the fed-up little fireplug of a tribune who leads the attack on Coriolanus. And he is the only cast member who doesn't look like an extra from Braveheart in his little skirt.
What hurts the production most is its torturous length. Three hours of "BLAH BLAH BLAH goest thou!" is hard on the nerves and misery to the sacrum. As Samuel Johnson once observed, "The mind can absorb only what the bottom can endure."
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