CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Coriolanus at Shakespeare & Company's new Founder's Theater
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
Coriolanus at Shakespeare & Company's new Founder's Theater Shakespeare & Company's bare bones staging of Coriolanus was one of last summer's highlights. It is an ideal choice for the inaugural production for the 428-seat Founders Theatre which will be the most used of the theaters at the 63-acre property that's taking shape as one of the East Coast's most exciting theatrical facilities. While the new space has indeed given this latest incarnation of the play a sense of newness, the essence of the original production is intact and my review of the summer 2000 production that's re-posted at the end of the current review still holds. Some comments on how the play transferred to the Founders Theatre are in order.
CurtainUp's London critic has often praised the Tricycle Theatre, as one of the most attractive and actor and audience friendly of London's Fringe theaters -- and one of the primary inspirations for the Founders Theatre architects. The Elizabethan style scaffolded and canvas-walled theater is indeed a place that intimately connects actors and audience. Its adaptability to a variety of stage configurations, the excellent acoustics (abetted by the canvas walls and the open-backed design of the padded seats make it a play-perfect theater, whether for Shakespeare's plays or more contemporary works. The ample amenities are sure to put actors and audience in the right mood; for example: air conditioning, a spacious rehearsal area, the body-friendly orchestra benches and loge chairs, ultra modern bathrooms, the circular lobby with a cafe and view of the grounds.
Coriolanus is an ideal choice to initiate the theater. It is considered theatrical wisdom not to break in a new theater with a new productions. Thus Coriolanus, which was admired by many but seen by far too few in the smaller (108 seats as compared to 428 at the new stage) and much more spartan Stables Theatre, now not only has a chance to reach a larger audience, but to take advantage of the Founders' atmosphere and more sophisticated lighting.
Directors Packer and Simotes and the actors (all but three from last summer's cast) have indeed transferred this most accessible Coriolanus I've ever seen with great success. The sand-colored costumes look better than ever against the theater's palette of burgundy canvas and beige upholstery. The Elizabethan format with the audience seated on four sides of the stage to form a human wall around the performers, deepens he intimacy of the "bare bones" production in which just ten actors represent the leaders and citizens of two warring countries.
With the interval of a year to think about their roles, and the new space to inspire them, the actors have also added fresh interpretative touches -- the humor of the scene in which the "live " statues are moved on and off their pedestals is heightened, as is some of the interaction with the audience which is in closer proximity even though the theater is larger than the Stables. The fight scenes seem to have been built up which may account for an extra fifteen minutes this time around.
Even a large picture couldn't do justice to this practical and beautiful theater. I look forward to seeing the next production, Collected Stories, which in its two New York runs was staged in traditional theaters with a proscenium stage facing the audience. I also can't wait to see the theater's other potential configurations put to work. The current setup will stay in place for the rest of the season -- but future seasons may bring us plays staged around a Runway (the stage a central playing area with entrances at either side and the audience seated bleacher style on the long sides, a Thrust (with the audience on three sides), a Promenade (with the audience sitting and standing around an extended, rectangular stage).
For details about the the rest of the season at the Founders, as well as Shakespeare & Company's other ready-for-action new 99-seat theater, Spring Lawn Mansion (for strangers to this area, it really is a mansion, one of the famous Berkshire Cottages), see our Summer 2001 Index.
2001 PRODUCTION DETAILS
The directors, design team and all but three of the original actors are in place so rather than repeat the production notes in the original review, below a cast list to reflect the changes in the ensemble, along with the performance schedule.
Cast: (except for Dan McCleary, all actors play multiple roles, as detailed in the the prologue during which they introduce themselves, using scripts they themselves wrote. Thus, this listing includes only the key roles): Jonathan Epstein (Aufidius), Elizabeth Ingram (Volumnia), Dennis Krausnick (Menenius), Dan McCleary (Coriolanus), Michael F. Toomey (Brutus), Lisa Volpe (Sicinius/Valeria), Mark Woollett (Cominius), and newcomers Tené. Carter (Virgilia), Samuel R. Gates (Titus Lartius), and Ty Skelton (Soldier/fight captain). Jack Lee and Hachi Ramos will rotate in as Young Martius.
Founders' Theatre, 70 KembleSt., Lenox, (413) 637-1199
/13/01-7/13/01; opening 6/16/01
Performances: Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 pm
The Original summer 2000 review in the Stables Theater-
Tina Packer begins her director's notes for Shakespeare & Company's Coriolanus by pointing out that George Bernard Shaw called it Shakespeare's greatest comedy while it was T. S. Eliot's favorite tragedy. And, by golly, this Renaissance woman (Packer is the company's founder, artistic director, chief visionary and super fund raiser) has given us a production that blends Shaw and Eliot's view. It's also one of the most accessible and stimulating versions of this complex play that you're likely to see in a long while.
As part of the company's Bare Bard Series, this Coriolanus, like Shakespeare's own touring companies, uses just nine actors and minimal design elements. Everyone except the title character (Dan McCleary) plays multiple roles.
Since there are some twenty named parts -- plus citizens, senators patricians, messengers, servants and attendants -- this sort of role switching can be a bit confusing. Not so here. With Kiki Smith's mostly sand-colored, mood and period perfect costumes visible and within easy reach, the actors move from role to role easily and right before our eyes. It all works quite naturally, and with no diminishment of the audience's ability to get caught up in the story and recognize its timeliness even though it's set in the fifth century B.C.. Unlike the recent London production, which featured a big cast (headed by Ralph Fiennes) but had only eight crowd scene actors who looked lost on a big stage (review linked below), the Stables Theatre is ideally sized.
Ms. Packer's distinctive directorial touches begin with a prologue during which the actors, one by one, introduce the various roles they will play -- concluding by donning one of the robes scattered across the stage like stones. This prologue sets up the rhythm of all that follows. Its tone generally fits Shaw's comic vision. The crowd scene that follows rings in T.S. Eliot's tragic perspective.
And so the pattern is set for the ensuing action, with bloody high drama and tragedy leavened by moments of dark humor. The story unfolds in scene after scene of seamless transformations. Each is a confrontation between Caius Martius Coriolanus (the last name added after he defeats Rome's enemies at Corioli) and key individuals and groups. We hear the demands of the starving Roman proletariat. We see Coriolanus unable to relinquish his patrician and warrior past to be political and pander to their demands. We see him interact with the people who shaped him -- his power hungry mother Volumnia (Elizabeth Ingram) the father figure in his life, Menenius Agrippa (Dennis Krausnick). As important is his love-hate relationship with his arch-enemy, the Volscian general Tullus Aufidius (Jonathan Epstein), whose people he joins when his countrymen exile him. Finally, we see his wrenching capitulation to his mother's demands not to join the Volscian's attack on the Romans, and the inevitable price of that capitulation.
Playing Coriolanus marks a major step in Dan McCleary's acting career. He is the right age and build for the Roman general who, though only in his thirties, has fought in eighteen battles. He captures all the youthful stubbornness and defiance of the warrior, the locked up feeling of a man raised to be a killer. Finally, his antihero, becomes sympathetic as the son who cannot deny his overwhelming mother and sadly asks "Oh, mother, mother! What have you done?"
The rest of the Bare Bardians do full justice to their many roles. Jonathan Epstein, who turned the recent production of Twelfth Night into a triumph for the clown Festes (our review ) is a powerfully intense Tullus Aufidius. Elizabeth Ingram is magnificent as what our London critic called "the definitive mother with balls." Ingram's line delivery, like Epstein's, is thrilling. Lisa Wolpe also deserves special mention for her passionate portrayal of Sicinius Velutus, a Tribune to the people. In this, as in her other roles, she makes a most persuasive case for cross-gender casting.
Praise is also due to some of the striking images created within the production's simple framework. The pedestals on which McCleary and Epstein often stand statue still (hard acting work!) are particularly striking -- with the scene when Caius Martius mounts one of the pedestal to take his final place in history an unforgettable finale.
Last, but hardly least, a word about the music which plays a major role as a result of an unusual collaboration between Tina Packer and five composing interns of the Tanglewood Music Center. I was fortunate enough to attend one of a weekly series of "Tina Talks" in which Packer and two of these talented composers explained the process of this collaboration. It began with a series of meetings during which Packer talked to the students about the play (including one session at which she read from the play using only vowels, a regular company voice exercise which proved an inspirational jumpstart for the students). This hour long lecture whetted my appetite to find out how it all turned out. I was not disappointed. With one of the composers, Dan Cooper, working with the company's sound designers Mark Huang and Jason Fitzgerald, the newly composed pieces were hauntingly beautiful and at all times supported rather than overwhelmed the play. All told, a galvanizing enhancement and, like the casting of an opera star who happens to be a local girl in Berkshire Theatre Festival's Camelot (our review) part of what makes Berkshire theater special.
back to the top LINKS
For reviews of a London production of Coriolanus starring Ralph Fiennes which may shed further light on the play: Lizzie Loveridge on that production in London, Les Gutman during the production's visit to Brooklyn Academy of Music. .
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tina Packer
Associate director/fight choreographer: Tony Simotes
Cast (alphabetical order): Nehassaiu deGannes, Jonathan Epstein, Elizabeth Ingram, Dennis Krausnick, Dan McCleary, Ken Yatta Rogers, Michael F. Toomey, Lisa Wolpe, Mark Woollett; also Jack Lee, Daisy Desiree Delacey and Hachi Ramos alternating as Young Caius, the son of Caius Martius and Virgilia.
Fight Choreographer: Tony Simotes
Dramaturge: Lisa Tromovitch
Set Design: Rachel Nemec
Lighting Design: Stephen Ball
Costume Design: Kiki Smith
Original score: Tanglewood Music Center Fellows Fernando Benadon, Dan Cooper, Koji Nakano, Norbert Palej, Ling-Huei Tsai,
Sound Designers: Dan Cooper, Mark Huang, Jason Fitzgerald
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Presented by Shakespeare & Company
Stables Theatre, Plunkett St., Lenox, MA
For tickets and other information: 413/637-3353 or boxoffice @shakespeare.org
8/4/2000-9/03/2000; opening 8/12/2000
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 8/13 /2000 performance