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[whitespace] 'Coriolanus'
Your Clothes, Give Them to Me: Oh wait, you already did. John Preston (left) as Coriolanus and Aldo Billingslea as Tullus Aufidius.

The Terminator

He can't be bargained with! He can't be reasoned with! He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. He's Shakespeare's Coriolanus.

By Sarah Phelan

ONE WORD of advice about Coriolanus: Since the play is rarely produced and deals with ancient history, it helps to read the script ahead of time, since there is barely a moment when the stage isn't full of competing factions, which can be confusing if you don't know your Agrippa from your Titus.

That being said, SSC's staging of the play, which has traditionally been deemed problematic to produce, blooms under Kent Gash's direction. Yes, Coriolanus (John Preston) is a killing machine with undemocratic attitude, a product of testosterone-pumped war-waging Rome, but that's what makes him so shockingly modern. A soldiering aristocrat, he thoroughly despises the plebes, but, hey, at the very least he's honest about it--and isn't honesty what we all say we want in politicians?

But honesty, as Coriolanus finds out to his cost, can be damning in the political arena, where compromise and double-talk is king. Coriolanus' problem is his belief that he's entitled to a consulship on account of his military prowess, which is understandable given that Rome, while messily giving birth to democracy, is at war with the neighboring Volscians, whom Coriolanus almost single-handedly defeats at Corioles (hence his honorific title, in addition to his given name, Caius Martius).

But though he's the returning war hero and favored by the aristocracy, Coriolanus is distrusted by the people, whom he despises but whose approval he needs to become consul. This elitist attitude creates a chink in Coriolanus' armor that political schemers and tribunes Sicinius Velutus (Terry Alexander) and Junius Brutus (George Daisa)--the dapper duo in designer suits-- shamelessly exploit.

Full Frontal

The result? Militaristic and democratic values clash with all the dazzle of a full-frontal sword fight, only this time it's words that do the damage. And as Sicinius and Junius do their best to discredit Coriolanus while keeping their hands clean, it becomes clear that what's tricky about democracy is that testosterone and martial values still dominate, same as they ever did, only now the will of the people must appear to have been done.

Shakespeare definitely gave the lion's share of fun lines to Sicinius and Junius, and actors Alexander and Daisa take the opportunity to the max. But they are not the play's only schemers. Volumnia (Judith Roberts) convinces as Coriolanus' hard-edged mother who, cloistered by social order, lives vicariously through her son, in both the military and the political arena. Unlike Coriolanus, she's prepared to change her tune, at least in public, if that will enable her to slither into the power spot, but, a prisoner of her gender, she becomes part of her son's collateral damage.

Meanwhile, Coriolanus' wife, Virgilia (Jacqueline van Biene), gives us Shakespeare's take on the dumb blonde. By remaining almost completely mute throughout the play, Virgilia not-so-dumbly illustrates that in a world of large egos, the only way to get attention is by keeping silent.

Other memorable performances were Carl Cofield as Menenius Agrippa, the white-suited patrician with the flashy rings (I enjoyed his drape-around-the-suit look as a minimalist nod to the classical toga) and Aldo Billingslea as Tullus Aufidius, particularly eye-catching as the whip-cracking, shirtless bondage-style general of the Volscians. Last but not least was composer and musician Klimchak, who managed to rock out while hanging in a cage from the ceiling.

There's also laser tag, gunfire and sword-fighting aplenty. But unlike the blood-guts-and-explosions formula of Hollywood action films, the special effects in this production aren't a substitute for a gripping plot, but rather a welcome enhancement to keep tension taut.

By the end of this alarmingly contemporary-looking production, it was clear, once again, that Shakespeare (whoever s/he was) is beyond compare when it comes to understanding and portraying the human condition. This time round, we got to witness a sobering and timely reminder that it may be impossible to be a truly great leader and a truly great person on your own terms.

And in the course of three hours, we have seen anarchy, chaos, rapid administrational changes and a world upended by tribunes, who shouldn't be running the show and who are calling heroes traitors, demanding death by throwing, in this case from the Tarpeian rock, a handy cliff from which state criminals were hurled in the good ol' days of Rome.

In taking one of Shakespeare's least performed plays and jazzing it up by juxtaposing classical with modern themes (think Fellini's Roma), director Kent Gash has revealed Coriolanus to be an endlessly fascinating, compelling and complex play. Besides being the first to showcase this really dynamic and powerful story, he is also the director with this season's hit on his hands.

Coriolanus plays through Aug. 31 in USCS's Indoor Theater. For ticket information and show times, call 459.2159 or visit www.shakespearesantacruz.org.

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From the August 7-14, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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