Saturday, September 6, 2008

Two Veterans' Organizations and the L.A. County Arts Commission Team Up to Present a Fresh, Nuanced Production of CORIOLANUS

I just saw a production of Coriolanus, Shakespeare's Roman play about a warlike Aristocrat who wins endless battles for his home city-state only to be exiled for his excessive ambition. I seem to have left the damn program on my seat, since it isn't in my bag, but I did take notes and will wing my review from those.

The production was:
"Produced by LA Area Veteran's Artists Alliance (LAAVAA) & Veterans Center For The Performing Arts (VCPA); Sponsored by CD 11 Councilman Bill Rosendahl." The Councilman, the Director -- Stephan Wolfert -- and several of the actors were Veterans of America's Wars, which many Veterans condemn as no less aggressive and imperial than were the wars of Rome.

While Ian Casselberry's performance was somewhat hampered by flat delivery (i.e., his speech was energetic, but lacked variation in pitch and in volume) and poor enunciation, the production had few weak spots, most of them quite unimportant (e.g., while the name "Coriolanus" should have stress on the 1st and 4th syllables, the city he conquered to win that title is "Corioli," which I believe should be pronounced "co-RYE-ole-eye"; its vowels should be similar to "oh iodine," not "Cory OH lee." but really, who cares? And am I asking how this was pronounced by the Romans, or by the Elizabethans? It doesn't matter). Another actor said "counsel" instead of "consul." I notice these things because I'm obsessed with language, especially the auditory dimension of poetry; I recognize, however, that not everybody is into that, and not every production is even aiming for that particular kind of excellence.

Dan Kucan, a handsome guy with enormous arms and martial arts training galore, is blessed and cursed with a strong resemblance to Tom Cruise which must be exceedingly annoying to him when people comment on it (which I just did anyway, making you more likely to remember the dude, which is good for him). What does matter, of course, is his excellent performance in the lead role. Kucan correctly timed the beginning of Coriolanus' break from the emotional straightjacket in which that general had lived his whole life. His voice broke when it should (IMHO -- duh), and not before, and his twisted attachment to his Mother Volumnia -- I'm very sorry I can't mention the actress' name, but I lost the program -- was carried through with consistent excellence from both players. At one point a weak slap from Volumnia on Caius Martius' [that is, Coriolanus'] cheek drops the invincible soldier to the floor.

Coriolanus' Oedipal desire for his mother Volumnia became clear at two points: first, when the two are in conflict about the son's aversion to the common people. The mother is no democrat (that is, no republican); she too holds the plebs in contempt. But unlike her rigid and, it turns out, brittle son, Volumnia sees that the only way he can get the Consulship is to put on a false humility, to bend without breaking, and use a cynical politics to mollify his populist opponents and the mob they represent. He is literally incapable of this, at this point has already tried it and failed. The reason he tries again is not to secure the high office, but to please and appease his mother, to whom he reaches out for an amorous kiss which he does not get.

The second expression of this uni-directional incestuous yearning comes at the end of this staging of the drama. The director boldly chose to bring Coriolanus to his death not by Aufidius, as the text has it, but by a suicide on his own sword whose handle is in his mother's hand. Having been stabbed, Kucan's Coriolanus drives the weapon in deeper and deeper while walking forward toward her (in a weird motion, like a horizontal version of climbing). I've seen that image before, in the 1980's Arthurian film Excalibur, at whose climactic end the aging King Arthur is run through by the spear of his son Mordred, and then does that weird, horizontal, hand-over-hand climb toward his murderer whom he dispatches with that famous sword when he reaches him. But here, the parent and child pair are hetero-gendered, and the wounded arrival at the end of the unmistakeably phallic [if I say "penis-esque" instead, does it sound less trite & Freudian & lit-critified?] weapon is a passionate but unrequited lover's kiss before the soldier expires. One measure of the production's success: despite how utterly melodramatic that scene sounds as I describe it (I guess the allusion to Excalibur didn't help -- but remember, that movie had no less a Shakespearean than Nicol Williamson in the role of Merlin), it worked damn well on stage.

At the very beginning of the performance, Coriolanus carried not a sword or pair of swords, but two sticks, which he bundles together before putting them away. As soon as the sticks were close enough to form a bundle, I saw it as the fasces, that bundle of rods (where have we heard that phrase before, "bundle of sticks"? Isn't that what the British call a cigarette?) which represents the imperium of the Roman state and its appointed generals. Of course, this is the term from which "fascism" was coined; whether the players knew it or not, this image was damn salient for the show as far as I was concerned. There are no swords in this production, because the sticks are symbols for them -- pragmatic, because much less dangerous for the actors, but also interesting. When we hear of "boys with sticks and wives with stones," the ironic distance between the inadequate weapons (and therefore, the natures) of those two kinds of non-men, on the one hand, and the real swords of the real men, on the other, is collapsed (in other words, it's rendered still more ironic) by the fact that this show uses sticks to represent swords. Any long thrusting thing will do.

Shakespeare plumbs the depths of military homoeroticism, its disastrous proximity to violence, and the way it can complicate and even destroy the pair bonding of men and their female mates. The rhetoric of that exercise is all over the play, much of it so obvious as not to bear mention here, some of it more subtle. "Into the bowels of Rome"; "fisting each other's throats"; and so on. Through the fabric of the play there runs a red thread of gender reversal, as though the extreme end of martial masculinity logically passes a point where it turns into its opposite. In Julius Caesar, Antony imagines that the mouth-like wounds of Caesar have tongues to speak with. In Coriolanus, the hero refers to his own wounds as "my nothings" (and everybody knows that during Shakespeare's lifetime, "nothing" meant feminine unmentionables), and later we're given an image of speaking wounds. But this time, "we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them." The context of both quotations is the same -- back from his latest war, Coriolanus must show his wounds to the common people in order to earn their votes (their "voices") for his consulship. He refuses thus: "I had rather have one scratch my head i' the sun / When the alarum were struck than idly sit / To hear my nothings monster'd." Wounds are invaginations (just as the penetrating weapon that makes them is phallic), and the refusal to show them belongs to this idea. Modesty indeed. I certainly don't want to monster his nothings.

Poor taste be damned, remember Scott Thompson's battlefield scene in Brain Candy, the film from The Kids in the Hall.

Meninius, too, was well played, with a fine mixture of levity and disillusioned maturity. For me, the stars were Dan Kucan and Director Stephan Wolfert. The show I just saw was the last of the run, so this review can't go up anywhere but here. Still, part of the reason I got off my ass and saw the show was so that I could do my bit to keep my fellow artists feeling non-invisible. So that's my "review."

I end by adding that although I taught this play a few years ago, I'd forgotten it enough to be truly struck by some 8 or 10 lines here and there whose brilliance has for four centuries burned and burned, remaining undiminished, "not consumed" by the loss of novelty nor by the drift of the collective mind (and its language) away from the concerns and idioms of 1564 to 1616 (Exodus 3:2).

p.s. I once had a friend who went to a job interview at some English Department somewhere. One of the faculty members on the search committee looked over her resume and saw that in a core-curriculum, college-wide survey course for non-majors, she had taught Coriolanus, which nobody ever does. He asked her about that unusual choice, and she turned inward, looked into the wrong box in her mind -- the box with the truth in it -- and said, "It's a tragedy about someone so extraordinary that he simply cannot become a team player." Game over!
SIRFLA Shakespeare Festival (through Sept 7, 2008)
Twelfth Night and Coriolanus
by William Shakespeare, Stephan Wolfert, Director Free admission with free parking behind WLA Municipal Bldg Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 4 pm (after WLA Farmers' Mkt) Twelfth Night: Sept 5, 7 Coriolanus: Sept 6. WLA Civic Center Bandshell, 11338 Santa Monica Blvd & 1645 Corinth Avenue, LA 90025, (behind Felicia Mahood Senior Ctr & West LA Public Library)

1 comment:

  1. Jamey, I absolutely love the p.s. at the end. I laughed to myself (I think...) during an interview yesterday, thinking of it.


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