Shakespeare’s ceremonial plays of cracked leadership—Richard II, Richard III, Coriolanus—raise sharp problems of style. Regal narcissists blithely tear kingdoms apart; phalanxes of women gather to supplicate, or to curse, or both; the scene shifts uneasily from the antics of the powerful to the protests of anonymous citizens. Confronting such unfamiliar politics and hollow selves where psychology should be, the American theater tends to stumble. What are these things? Histories? Tragedies? What?
Consider the plot of Coriolanus: Coriolanus, the unmatched warrior, refuses to show the Roman people his wounds, so he is banished from the city. Joining the Volscian army of his enemy, Aufidius, he threatens the gates of Rome. His mother pleads with him, and he gives up the wars; the Volscians, feeling betrayed, are suddenly able to murder him easily. Coriolanus remains compelling and very strange. Its exposure of sick old tricks used by aristocrats who claim to speak for the people makes it potentially urgent.
The Theatre for a New Audience knows that Coriolanus is weird and tries to make the play timely. This production, however, is still searching for a style. Director Karin Coonrod leads the play’s crowds in the direction of Brecht: Jennifer Ikeda announces the number of each scene as it begins and actors scrawl names of scenes in chalk on the towering walls of John Conklin’s set. But these gestures are halfhearted; they scarcely touch the actors in the play’s central roles. The acting follows no consistent style, Brechtian or otherwise. That hodgepodge of late-Method depth and “good” (if inconsistent) Anglo-philic diction that all too often marks classy American Shakespeare productions rules.
Christian Camargo’s Coriolanus inevitably suffers under the strain. The public predicament of Shakespeare’s antihero makes a prescient joke about Method acting: Please, please show us your wounds. There is constant tension between Camargo’s training in the display of psychic depth and Coriolanus’s refusal to show off such depth.
Take the moment when Rome has awarded its warrior his honorific title, Coriolanus, for his murders in the city of Corioles. Coriolanus has spotted a poor man who cared for his injuries there among Roman prisoners, and he asks for this man’s freedom. The other Roman generals immediately consent, and ask the man’s name. “By Jupiter! Forgot!” replies the battle-worn Coriolanus. The scene moves quickly on.
Coonrod and Camargo play the moment for laughs, and there is a kind of humor in it: Coriolanus grimaces, dismayed by his own forgetfulness. But this dismay suggests a whole ethic foreign to the character. To have thought of the poor man is Coriolanus’s tribute: He has gained a name by his actions, the poor man has lost one, and that, for Coriolanus, is more or less as it should be.
This production consistently scants the nastiness of Coriolanus and his mother, Volumnia, played lugubriously and uncertainly by Roberta Maxwell. Camargo’s body constantly apologizes for the character’s contempt: A repertoire of subtle nervous movements undermines his spoken abuse. Similarly, Maxwell never enjoys her character’s voluptuous delectation in carnage.
“More fun!” Brecht might have exclaimed. Because Camargo and Maxwell seek good Method justifications for their characters’ nastiness, they never have fun presenting it. This anhedonia is catching: The crowd, even when riled up, suggests a well-behaved studio audience waiting for its next cue.
The great exception to this rule of joyless caution is Jonathan Fried, whose Menenius, mediator between Coriolanus and the people, frankly and intelligently revels in hypocritical manipulation of the crowd.
Fried’s revelry, one might say, comes easily: The role does not require him to embrace the passion for violence shared by Coriolanus and Volumnia. A true Brechtian approach, of course, wouldn’t require actors to embrace that passion; they would need only demonstrate it. Camargo and Maxwell, however, seem so afraid of being taken as people who eat babies for breakfast that they cannot present a mother and son who enjoy the glory of murdering enemies.
This is not to say that the right solution to the production’s stalemate between Method and Brechtian estrangement would necessarily have been the Brechtian one. To transform oneself via the Method into Coriolanus or Volumnia could be a terrifying pleasure. Such pleasure would, in turn, lead to a very different rendition of the great scene in which Coriolanus gives up his war on Rome because of his mother’s pleading. As it stands here, Shakespeare’s climax, with its oedipal politics, goes nowhere. In the next scene, with Coriolanus dead, Aufidius (Teagle F. Bougere) runs in circles and throws himself at the wall. This desperate and belated injection of energy into the production draws attention only to the hours it has been missing.