Last Saturday afternoon, I went into the hills of Topanga (midway between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley in lovely southern California) to Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum to catch their production of Coriolanus.
For those who’ve never been to a play here, it’s an outdoor venue, with an irregular playing space with lots of staging possibilities. And for this production of Coriolanus, directors Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall make the most of it. The attack on Corioles is well-staged, especially in the use of siege ladders and the chaotic fight choreography (overseen by Dane Oliver and Aaron Hendry).
Directors Geer and Marshall make some other interesting choices as well. In a play where there is not a little homosociality and perceivable homo-eroticism, both Caius Martius and Tullus Aufidius are shown kissing their wives and and children. In a play that’s already difficult in terms of protagonist likability, Martius is done no favors railing against the common people to his son (nothing like poisoning the mind of the next generation!) and actually smothering Aufidius’ baby during the siege of Corioles. And in a play where the text, though dominated by manly men doing manly things, presents one of the most dominant female characters in the canon–Martius’ mother, Volumnia–the choice has been made to make the central supporting character of the patrician Menenius female (and in an early scene, melding that character with Volumnia’s friend Valeria (which gives the two female characters a history and a friendly dynamic).
Volumnia and Menenius are played by co-directors Geer and Marshall, respectively, and both give towering performances. David De Santos gives a solid pillar-like performance as the central Martius–the man who will be Coriolanus–but it’s a tough, thankless role… he’s not a likable hero, but he’s no charming villain (a la Richard or Iago), either. On the day I attended, Martius’ foil, Aufidius, was played by understudy Dane Oliver, who did an admirable job in the role. While there is a drop-off in consistency and quality of performance in much of the ensemble, the central roles were ably done, and carry the show well.
If I have any gripes with the production, they would be in terms of intermission and audience. The production breaks for intermission with…
…the reveal the tribunes’ betrayal of Coriolanus. In my mind, that comes a bit early and could have been more effective if done later. If the interval had taken place with the Coriolanus’ exit from the capitol to return home, the second act could have mirrored the first act’s opening with the common people, armed and formed into a mob. If it had taken place even later with Coriolanus’ banishment, then the second act could have opened with his arrival in Antium, which would give the audience a better sense of the passage of time in the play. Yes, I understand the banishment takes place in Act Four, but time-wise and in pacing with this production, I think it would have worked. The intermission took place an hour into the show, which ran a total of two and a quarter hours. Factoring in a short, ten-minute intermission, with even the later break after the banishment, the first half would have run just under one hour and twenty minutes and the second act would have run forty minutes. And with a weirdly structured play (Shakespeare burdens the prospective director by giving us the only action early in the play, with no action in the second half). But the intermission is a minor gripe.
My other gripe rests on the shoulders of the audience.
Please: do not bring children under the age of 7 or 8 to a play that tests one’s listening skills and cognitive function (i.e. Shakespeare, and especially one that’s not part of the commonly produced canon). Your kids’ distracted-ness is distracting and does not help the performers.
But these are small negatives. The main positive is that this is a very good production of a infrequently produced play. Kudos to Theatricum for producing something a little out of the norm (of course, this summer, they’re also giving their audiences the more recognizable Midsummer). I mean, how many chances do you get to see Coriolanus? In a beautiful outdoor setting? With standout performances?
Not many, my friends. So take advantage of your opportunity, now through mid-September.