Poor citizens decrying mistreatment by the rich, leaders jockeying for power and soldiers battling stress are some of today’s societal themes. Yet Shakespeare depicted this three-fold scenario in his prescient tragedy "Coriolanus," long ago. This trio of competing interests bubbling within the lower class citizens sparks contempt in the legendary title general Caius Martius Coriolanus (Nicolas Carriere). A gritty and absorbing staging, Shakespeare's insightful depiction resonates fully in the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's (CSC) play at the Boston Common.
CSC artistic director Steve Maler makes that resonance persuasive with a boisterous populace that calls to mind Occupy Boston. Soldiers —in costumer Seth Bodie's modern day rugged uniforms — bring to mind Americans deployed in Afghanistan. Designer Cristina Todesco's tall wooden fortifications — often climbed by CSC actors — alternately become home to Romans and their Volscian rivals (Italians eventually incorporated into Rome). Robert Walsh is arrestingly good as Coriolanus' admiring colleague Cominius. He’s also arguably the best fight choreographer in the Hub. He fired up the hand to hand combat sequences along with surreal green lighting from designer Eric Southern.
Purists may argue that military assault weapons contradict scenes with lines that speak of swords and knives. Even so, the verbal warfare is so visceral here that such reservations become relative quibbles. Given the shifting alliances, it is almost as if the leaders of Rome were taking their cues from the public as much as from the realities of their day. Tribunes, Sicinius Velutus (Jacqui Parker) and unrelentingly brutal Junius Brutus (Remo Airaldi), enflame the people at the expense of Rome's security. Senate nobles, even virtuous Menenius Agrippa, played with charm and wisdom by Fred Sullivan,Jr. seem ineffectual by contrast.
Ultimately ,though, the play comes down to Coriolanus, whose combination of iconoclast and lost soul proves both maddening and majestic. Honored with the title name for strategic action in the taking of the Volscian stronghold of Corioles, Caius Martius Coriolanus is a distinguished soldier uncomfortable with peace time considerations and plagued by what today would be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Can he satisfy the populace with endearing speeches as their choice for consul or will he remain an independent voice? Will his strong mother Volumnia — played with the tenacity of a lioness by Karen MacDonald — convince him to act in a way that protects Rome?
Finally, how will he fare with Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius, portrayed with a striking mix of vulnerability and strength by Maurice Parent? Carriere captures Coriolanus’ complexity — from his strength and inflexibility to his feelings for his mother — in his speeches as well as in his demeanor as soldier and son.
Even Shakespeare buffs may be relatively unfamiliar with this rarely staged but very timely tragedy. Maler and CSC make the play’s messages about manipulated masses, unscrupulous politicians and war-weary soldiers immediate and compelling.
"Coriolanus" is the 17th annual installment of the free Shakespeare on the Common series. It runs through August 12. Saturday August 11, 8pm; Sunday August 12, 7pm.