St. Louis Shakespeare's rendition of Coriolanus offers modern-day metaphors

Jul 26, 2012 at 4:00 am
Left to right: Reginald Pierre, Betsy Bowman, Richard Lewis, Danielle Hargis
Left to right: Reginald Pierre, Betsy Bowman, Richard Lewis, Danielle Hargis Kim Carlson

Times are tough in the big city these days. The common folk congregate in the streets agitating for more food and better care from the state, but the wealthy elite offer only platitudes and patronizing lectures on trickle-down economics. The ruling class has more important things to worry about than some sickly, starving commoners; there's a big election coming up, and they have power bases to consolidate so that the status quo remains comfortably quo.

It's eerie how Shakespeare could so accurately predict the socioeconomic doldrums and all-for-nothing political situation of the early 21st century while botching the setting by placing his story in pre-imperial Rome rather than America — fortunately, Donna Northcott covers ably for Shakespeare by modernizing the dress and keeping the Eternal City as backdrop in her bracing staging of Coriolanus. It's a show that suffers slightly from a fitful first act but overall is an artistic triumph.

Coriolanus (Reginald Pierre) is a noble warrior, a man with an inviolate sense of himself. Honor, dignity, truth — these are his meat and drink, a Roman patriot who throws himself into battle with no regard for his own safety and no longing for laurels or plaudits. Doing his duty for his country and people is his only reward. It's an interesting character flaw because Coriolanus loathes the people for their fickleness and indolence.

Two tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius (Paul Devine and Brian Kappler, respectively), look to take advantage of this crack in Coriolanus' armor. If they can make him publicly spew hatred at the people, the people will never approve Coriolanus for the Roman consul. And so begins their dirty-tricks campaign against Rome's greatest war hero. If you're familiar with modern politics, you know Coriolanus is swift-boated before he even puts his foot in his mouth.

Pierre carves Coriolanus from the granite of his contradictory nature, revealing a hard man who is capable of rallying a troop of cowardly peasant conscripts to heroic action in battle, while being physically incapable of tolerating their presence in civilian life. Pierre the actor makes this partition in Coriolanus' psyche not just clear, but attractive. You thrill at his actions in battle, and you admire his forthrightness when he tells the people of Rome he despises them during a campaign rally.

I've praised Reginald Pierre for his exceptional mastery of Shakespeare's rhythms before, and I'll do so again; whether he's bellowing a martial exhortation or purring a scathing insult, you feel the fire and the sting. He's an actor with the heart of a musician, which is just what Shakespeare requires.

The first act, despite powerful performances, often feels like it is dragging. There's a bit too much "will he, won't he" with Coriolanus' pursuit of the people's support, and the act is just plain long. Things perk up when Michael Juncal appears to stride the world as Aufidius, garbed like Rambo and a sworn enemy to Coriolanus and Rome. Juncal is a primal actor, a series of small explosions in human form that illuminate his character's true self in their detonations.

In the second act Coriolanus pledges himself to Aufidius, and the two combine their power to sack Rome. They also continue their long-standing personal war, but in the political arena. Like Coriolanus the general, Coriolanus the politician quickly wins over his constituents by way of his honor and nobility. Meanwhile, the plotting Aufidius grows weary of finishing second to Coriolanus and schemes accordingly.

The final confrontation between the pair is as brutal as anything I've seen on stage, and somehow simultaneously beautiful. One man, beset by the multitude, holds fast to his code and triumphs even in death. Shakespeare didn't title the play Aufidius, after all. But men of principle don't rule the world, and thus is birthed a tragedy.