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New 'Coriolanus' at OSF feels distinctly contemporary

On the Shakespeare canon popularity scale, "Coriolanus" ranks right up there with "Timon of Athens." Consider that in three-quarters of a century up until Saturday night, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had produced it just four times, leaving it in 35th place in the OSF's Bard sweepstakes.

It's easy to see why. The main character is not only insufferable, he is that theatrically worse thing, a two-dimensional creature. He lacks the inner life of a Hamlet or Othello. He doesn't even have the delicious villainy of a Richard III.

There is no romance here, nor subplot to dazzle us. There is not one likeable character. And the play's political message is a bleak one: All politics is rotten, and nothing is going to save us.

Yet brought to life in a vigorous staging such as this one, directed by Laird Williamson, "Coriolanus" is an exciting piece of theater. Williamson has set this Roman play roughly in the present day in an imperial superpower weakened by endless wars, destabilized by a growing gap between rich and poor and riven by partisan conflicts. If it sounds all too familiar, blame Shakespeare.

Carrying laptops, cell phones and AK-47s, these Romans fight battles that could be ripped from today's headlines. Not to make too much of it, but even Coriolanus' side-switching, from Romans to Volscians, might remind you just a bit of the United States first supporting, then turning on, such regional players and one-time allies as Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

But the play's vaunted "relevance" (each age sees itself in it) is only part of the charm of this "Coriolanus." The other has to do with staging. The play, which is often presented on a grand scale, is staged in the arena configuration, "in the round," in the OSF's intimate New Theatre with a cast of just 15 actors, many of them playing multiple parts.

Richard Hay's set enfolds the audience, with actors ascending battlements in the corners of the black box for speeches and lolling in the aisles during crowd scenes. Scenery has been otherwise done away with except for a floor treatment that allows actors to pop up from the bowels of the New Theatre as if from foxholes and tunnels.

Coriolanus (Danforth Comins), real name Martius, is Rome's best warrior, a killing machine invented and programmed by his mother, Volumnia (Robynn Rodriguez), the most detestable woman in all Shakespeare (Lady Macbeth goads a willing partner; Volumnia took a baby and created a monster). His overweening pride makes it impossible for him to curry favor with the lower classes, who have been given the power to elect tribunes. This contempt for the common person sets Coriolanus apart from today's politician, who never meets a baby he can't kiss.

Menenius (Richard Elmore), the closest thing Coriolanus has to a friend, tries to maneuver Coriolanus to the consulship, the most powerful office in Rome, against powerful commoner tribunes Sicinius (Demetra Pittman) and Brutus (Rex Young). When he cannot suppress his contempt for the common people and is banished, Coriolanus commits the breathtakingly incorrect sin of going over to his archenemy Aufidius (Michael Elich) and the hated Volscians.

The play's climax pits him not against a military foe but Volumnia, who begs him to spare Rome, thus asking him to choose between destroying his family or betraying himself. As in the more popular tragedies, a great man's flaws have ensured his downfall.

"Coriolanus" has been viewed with alarm by politicos of all stripes. Although we never enter the interior of his psychology, its outlines are clear. He is a deeply conservative man whose rigid personality, Spartan embrace of military virtues and contempt for the people add up to a stunning portrait of the mama's boy as fascist.

Comins' portrayal is fiery. But he and Williamson seem to have been determined to find in Coriolanus' refusal to compromise some shred of something sympathetic. He is principled (you could say the same of Hitler). But it is always a mistake to play Shakespeare's heroes as too likeable. You wish Williamson had seen these characters through an even darker glass.

The most powerful performance belongs to Rodriguez, who humanizes the horrid Volumnia, who always sells her lust for power as maternal love. Some kind of warped Freudian bond with her bully boy is hinted at but never developed.

Even Elmore's Menenius, although a windbag, is not a scheming cynic — Coriolanus' brain — but a sort of well-meaning liberal, played almost for comic relief. The scheming Sicinius and Brutus arouse in us scarcely a shudder. Nasty as they are, everybody here is one degree too nice.

Despite this flaw the production has an admirable unity of conception and execution. Its final impression is that there is never a shortage of Coriolanuses to take up the bloody glove and go marching on through history.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Caius Martius (Danforth Comins, left) and Lartius (James J. Peck) strategize in their battle against the Volscians. - Photo by Jenny Graham