Scott Lange and Chaz Bratton as Aufidius and Coriolanus in the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company's production of "Coriolanus." Photo: Kat Hermes.

Pride Corrupts In Powerful 'Coriolanus'

By Judith Cookis Rubens

Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company never seems to shy away from a challenge.

Currently, the Grand Haven-based touring company that produces Shakespeare using original staging practices is tackling "Coriolanus," a lesser-known tragedy with themes of social class, politics, nobility and pride.

It's not as oft-produced as others, though a 2011 movie version directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes won critical praise and revived the story. But seen here under director Dennis Henry's winning guidance, it's still important and of-the-moment.

The story is the rise and fall of Roman warrior Caius Martius (later renamed Coriolanus) and his complex relationship with his people and his sworn enemy, Tullus Aufidius. Prepped for battle from a young age by his power-hungry mother, Volumnia, the young general Martius/Coriolanus earns the attention of the Roman Senate by defeating Volscian troops in their own city of Corioli (hence his later title). He wins the favor of the politicians in charge, but not the admiration of the general populace, who think him too arrogant, prideful and out-of-touch with the common man. Incensed that his people will not confirm him to the Senate, he lashes out in rage, only to get banished from Rome. He later turns traitor and joins forces with his once-sworn enemy, Aufidius, to plot against Rome. His impulsivity and his blind pride become his downfall.

This nimble 11-person cast flexes its creative muscle right from the start. There's an introductory prologue about actors going on strike (people vs. "the man"), which cleverly allows the theater to review its conventions - minimal sets, audience interaction, role doubling, cross-gendered casting - to any newbies.

Thematically well-chosen subversive rock anthems (performed by the cast, in costume) open each act, bridging history with the modern day.

Aided only with shiny swords, simple battle gear and a bit of bloody makeup, actors must rely on their impressive grasp of language and emotion to bring the tale to vivid life. Fight choreography is imposing and puts the audience right in the sword-clinking action, while a small-but-mighty ensemble manages to seem like a much-larger riotous crowd.

As the battle-focused Coriolanus, Chaz Bratton is engrossing and layered, letting tiny bits of the warrior's insecurity and immaturity seep out, mingling with brash arrogance and self-reliance. Scott Lange, as Volscian Gen. Aufidius, is well-cast, too. Both players seem to revel in the dramatic tension, bringing out the (dare I say it?) bro-mance of their evolution from enemies to wary co-conspirators.

Exploring some warped mother-son dynamics, Kathleen Bode stops a bit short of taking Volumnia to her full domineering heights, though she does work a mean guilt trip and produces a very impassioned plea to spare Rome's destruction. Volumnia, who has solely groomed her son for bloody battles and glory, seems wholly unaware that her zeal has produced our hero's stunted growth and inability to connect.

Supporting players Sarah Tryon, as Virgilia, Coriolanus' sensitive, sweet wife, and Scott Wright, as scheming Senator Menenius, keep us intrigued. Antonio Copeland, as Sicinius, and Kat Hermes, as Brutus, add some unexpected laughs as the Plebian Tribunes who rally the people to cast out their arrogant leader.

Though nearly 2 hours 45 minutes on opening night, "Coriolanus" is engrossing and fast moving, only lagging slightly toward the close of the first act. Strong acting, costumes and modern musical nods help make the story relevant, especially against near-daily news of revolts against authoritarian regimes around the world.

The theme of nobility - and what it means to be noble - pops up throughout the play.

Coriolanus' early, impassioned rallying cry to his troops mentions a "brave death outweighs bad life." His mother, too, nearly salivates over his 25 battle wounds, as if each are the mark of a noble man. But turning against one's own country, our hero learns, too late, does not deserve much noble acclaim.

Pigeon Creek's "Coriolanus" proves yet again that big budgets are not needed to produce powerful, relevant Shakespeare. In this case, the "people" (ticket-buying audiences) have the power to demand more.

REVIEW:

'Coriolanus'

Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company at Dog Story Theater, 7 Jefferson SE, Grand Rapids. 8 p.m. June 20-21 & 26-28, and 2 p.m. June 22 & 29. 2 hours, 45 minutes. $7-14. http://www.dogstorytheater.com

Creative 360, 1517 Bayliss Street, Midland. 2 p.m. July 13. http://www.becreative360.org

Seven Steps Up, 116 South Jackson Street, Spring Lake. 7:30 p.m. July 18. 616-850-0916

Box Factory for the Arts, 1101 Broad Street, St. Joseph. 7:30 p.m. July 26. 269-983-3688

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