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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

"In this play, there are no heroes. It 's really just like today"— Director Ellen Geer.
David DeSantos and Ellen Geer. (Photo by an Flanders)
Warrior that he is the man christened Caius Martius never really adjusts to having to take on a new name, amongst other obligations in his new arena on the public stage. His inability to play the political game is Martius's, later Coriolanus's, downfall; and the play that carries his name carries a certain bifurcation as well. Swords and sandals? Supplicant women? How about a dollop of both?

William Shakespeare's Coriolanus is getting a rare staging at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, a company that is unafraid to take on even obscure Bard plays. Coriolanus &emdash not usually an audience favorite &emdash; is partly a musing on the affects of populism and the sway of mob violence and partly a rumination on the swaying power that peaceful women have over their decidedly rougher hewn men. A successful production negotiates these two themes, giving each close to equal weight. At the Theatricum, with real life sisters Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall both co-directing the production and appearing in leading roles, the domestic themes hit with particular force, even at times overshadowing David DeSantos's solid turn in the title role..

That the Geers are front and center in the Theatricum is nothing unusual. Geer branding and family casting are hallmarks of the theater that carries one Will's name and stages another Will's plays. And to its credit, Geer and Marshall's production also contains many of the features that make watching a performance in the bucolic Topanga amphitheater a warm weather "must-do" for playgoing Angelenos. Balmy air, that all-purpose set amidst a hillside full of trees, actors understanding the verse they're speaking and a stage chock full of performers…check, check and check again.

That last element is especially critical. For a tale in which fickle, ungrateful masses play as vital a role as any in the Bard's canon, Coriolanus benefits from being able to fill a stage. Geer and Marshall have plenty of bodies. Whether they're enacting the starving commoners that our titular anti-hero spurns, the Volscian followers of Coriolanus's enemy Tullus Aufidius or an array of Vestal Virgins, this ensemble is bountiful and in fine mettle throughout.

We meet them first as a hungry rabble, powerless, disorganized and angry at those who don't understand their suffering over a food shortage. The smart and diplomatic Menenius (played genderless by Marshall) keeps the rabble placated in ways that Martius never can. Politico that he is, Menenius is trying to get Martius to win their favor and vice versa. But this man of war is having none of it. "What's the matter, you dissentious rogues," is his first line. He later brands them as "curs." Not the best way to curry favor, but at least in Rome 491 B.C.E., Martius never got his hands on Twitter.

As Martius, the object of. . . first, the common-wealth's hatred, then later their admiration and ultimately of their hatred again. . . DeSantos is a worthy adversary for rabble and enemies alike. Bearded and snarly, a vein perpetually throbbing in his neck, DeSantos gives us a man who lives to fight but takes no pleasure either in shedding blood or in serving his country; and when he actually has to go out and campaign, asking the commoners to elevate him to Consul, the man is in agony. DeSantos's Martius isn't a killing machine so much as a man with no use for other humans. His wife Virgilia (a quietly effective Michelle Wicklas) is justified in worrying that he won't make it out of battle alive.

Volumnia, Coriolanus's glory-seeking and highly patriotic mother, has no such worries. She would sacrifice her son if it meant preserving her homeland. On more than one occasion, actresses taking on Volumnia have overshadowed their Coriolanus. Ellen Geer is not a particularly subtle actress, and on her knees pouring out lengthy monologs she is nobody's supplicant. DeSantos may be a beast with a sword, but up against Geer's Volumnia, he doesn't have a prayer.

There's some juicy dramatic push-pull admiration and hatred working between DeSantos and Max Lawrence's Aufidius. Alan Blumenfeld and Tim Halligan are appropriately loathsome as the treacherous tribunes who engineer Coriolanus's public downfall and barely live to regret it. Dane Oliver and Aaron Henry stage the combat scenes with real brio. Young Quinnlyn Scheppner (alternating with Toby Luce) displays plenty of spunk as Coriolanus's young son. Scheppner is Ellen Geer's granddaughter, by the way. Yep, they enter the family business young at the Theatricum.

We are probably due for a Coriolanus that examines the rise and fall of an anti-social soldier-turned-politician in the digital age. For now, the Theatricum's offering offers a rousing couple of hours nonetheless.

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Coriolanus by William Shakespeare
Directed by Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall

Cast: Tavis L. Baker, Alan Blumenfeld, David De Santos, Ellen Geer, Tim Halligan, Holly Hawk, Michael Hoag, William Holbrook, Max Lawrence, Toby Luce, Melora Marshall, Dane Oliver, Gabriel Anthony Palma, Franc Ross, Quinnlyn Scheppner, Lawrence Sonderling, Andy STokan, Kien Toussaint, Sky Wahl, Christopher Wallinger, Michelle Wicklas, Katherine Banos, Paul Barrois, Nathan Bohannon, Harley Douvier, Sawyer Fuller, Frank Gress, Shaina Hammer, Sam Herbert, Todd Kliewer, William Maizell, Brian Patrick McGowan, Aaron Rivera Davis, Jason Sleisenger, Esme Urbaniak, Severn Urbaniak, Olivia Berumen, Fabian Cook, Jr., Lucas Gust, Ethan Haslam, Bedjou Jean, Caitlin Kilgore, Nathaniel Meek, Daniel Ramirez, Brandy Lynn Reinhard, Christine Sage, Sophie Thomason, Michael Yapujian
Assistant Director: Jordan Zyblski
Costume Design: Robert Merkel
Production Stage Manager: Elna Kordijan
Original Music/Sound Designer: Marshall McDaniel
Lighting Designer: Zachary Moore
Assistant Stage Manager/Properties Master: Sarah Dawn Lowry
Fight Choreographer: Dane Oliver, Aaron Hendry
Plays through September 23, 2018 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga (310) 455-3723,
Running time: Two hour and 30 minutes with one ten minute intermission.
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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