Leave it to director René Moreno (profiled in this week's "People" issue) to find a way to make Coriolanus hot. For Shakespeare Dallas' first production of this rarely done bit of Bard, Moreno cast the easy-on-the-eyes (and ears) actor Alex Organ in the title role. He plays Shakespeare's lonely warrior, a career soldier who loves fighting for the rights of the Romans but can't stand the people themselves.
It's a monster role to perform, loaded with long, difficult speeches, interrupted only by other characters, mostly Roman Tribunes, delivering more long speeches about all the battlefield conquests Caius Martius Coriolanus has led. The bigwigs want him to be elected consul, but Coriolanus refuses to campaign. He even hates the smell of the citizenry's sweat, yelling "Hang 'em!" when they come too near.
The hotness happens in the second half of this five-act drama (here edited down to about two and a half hours). Coriolanus, banished from Rome for refusing to act like a rock star or a demagogue, dons a disguise and returns to the scene of his greatest triumph, a bloody battle against the Volscian general Tullus Aufidius (played by Kevin Keeling, showing off a nice six-pack in his midriff-baring costume). And whom does our hero happen upon? Aufidius himself, who is more excited to see Coriolanus, he says, than he was to see his own wife on their wedding day.
Aufidius fawns over his old nemesis in this speech: "Though hast beat me out 12 several times, and I have nightly since dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me," says Aufidius. "We have been down together in my sleep, unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat ...."
Unbuckling helms? Hubba hubba. (That's Latin for "my toga's getting tight.")
By this time, what's happening onstage is like the scene in Ben-Hur when Stephen Boyd lays eyes on the young Charlton Heston. It's muscular man-love and after 90 previous minutes of blah-di-blah about ancient Roman history (the play is set in the 5th century B.C.), it's like flipping over a page of Shakespeare to find dialogue from 50 Shades of Grey.
Moreno gives the play spectacle and a sexy intimacy, making beautiful visuals as he moves actors all over scenery that looks like the ruins of an ancient temple. Organ and Keeling are especially good at bringing clarity to the speeches and humanity to their stolid characters. Cindy Beall also has fine moments as Volumnia, Coriolanus' mother.
At the end, Coriolanus dies, of course, but it's in the glistening arms of Aufidius. That's a pretty steamy bit of stagecraft, too. And well worth braving the scorching temps of the outdoor theater to witness. If you get too warm, just unbuckle your helm and relax.
Coriolanus continues through July 20, in rotating rep with Twelfth Night, both at Samuell-Grand Amphitheater. For tickets, shakespearedallas.org., or 214-559-2778. (Admission free on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.)