Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Corliolanus - Theater Review

When my kids were in preschool, there was an open house once a year where parent were invited. That event was called "soup night." To prepare for soup night every family was asked to choose a vegetable, dice it and have their child bring it to school. Then the teacher would take all the little baggies of vegetables and throw them in a pot and make vegetable soup out of them. The soup was served at the open house.

What was the result? Well, it was certainly food. It was edible. But, of course, it was a mess. It was a well intentioned exercise to bring cohesiveness to a group, to provide a tangible product that symbolized our community and to emphasize the shared role we have in helping to raise all of our children. It was a fine vision with a misguided method to accomplish it.

I thought about this bad soup as I was leaving the Seattle Shakespeare Company's latest production of Coriolanus. Not to belabor the metaphor, but the vision here was not bad and there were certainly plenty of good vegetables that were used in the making, but the final dish we were served was ultimately flawed.

I have to say I was a little shocked at how bad this production was. It began with what was one of the worst stage fight/battle sequences I have ever seen. It looked like it might have been closer to a symbolic pantomime ballet where we weren't supposed to even venture the mildest belief that these people could actually be hitting each other. But such a ballet would be graceful even in its brutishness and certainly not have the grunting and histrionics associated with professional wrestling. It would certainly not climax with a cliched giant silhouette of Caius Martius (later Coriolanus) back lit like a foreboding villain in a cartoon.

The overacting of the players engaged in battle was so extreme that during an early scene shift, after a moment of quiet, when I heard a clearly fake, pretend, unauthentic, actor-ly growl coming from off stage, I almost groaned to myself that we were about to endure another round of horrifically stage-y stage combat. Yet, to my surprise, the sound was not coming from one of the posturing men who had just left the scene, but a young boy (Jack Taylor) playing Young Martius (Coriolanus's son). The boy was entering the scene pretending to fight off invisible make-believe enemies.

This may have been the most demonstrative display of the difference between good acting and bad acting I have seen on the same stage in a long time. The boy's action was to pretend. So he did. He grunted and howled, thrust his wooden sword and charged his foes. It sounded and looked perfectly like a boy pretending. He was perfect. Yet it also looked just like the men  who had been on stage before him. But they weren't supposed to be pretending. They were supposed to have been fighting a life or death battle. Unfortunately the audience didn't see a life or death battle. The audience saw a mediocre version of an event akin to an amateur Renaissance fair.

The juxtaposition between the young Jack Taylor's acting and the rest of the cast is not the only inconsistency. Both Peter Jacobs as Menenius Agrippa and Therese Diekhans as Volumnia, each who had some of my favorite moments in the play, seemed to be struggling to slow down and be clear in their actions and speech in what was an otherwise a noisy, cluttered and unnecessarily messy production.

The design of the show was unbalanced throughout and certainly did not help guide the actors or the audience through the story. The costumes were the worst kind of undefined eclectic mishmash of periods and styles that the apocalyptic film The Road Warrior made popular and dramatically acceptable. But the combination of Home Depot purchased knee pads with authentic looking Roman Helmets made some of the cast look ridiculously comical in scenes that called for gravity. The washed out paper-mache  look to the set did not do anything to evoke time, place, mood or feel (sets need to do one of these at minimum). The stark white light that was used on many scenes, casting large awkward shadows on black walls that were clearly painted black so as not to be part of the set and illuminating elements of costume and set design that are better left a little mysterious to the audience, was a continual "last call" alert on a play that had hardly even got going.

All this, of course, to me, points to a lack of clear and focused direction. The director, David Quicksall, clearly had some big ideas with this production. His use of the crowd scenes to reflect contemporary urban unrest as we have seen in the last year with the "Occupy" movements, seems on the surface like a sound idea. Yet the scenes he created on stage did not contain a fraction of the intensity, seriousness, silliness, audacity, charm, or absurdity of the events that happened during Occupy Seattle. Instead these actors looked like a predictably unified unthinking mob who cared more about making intense facial expressions than changing the world around them.

I will grant that there was one moment of directorial genius in the evening. As the conclusion of an fight between Coriolanus (still Martius at this moment of the play) and Tullus Aufidious draws the two fighting actors upstage, we suddenly have Volumnia (Coriolanus's mother) and Young Martius (his son) run slowly across the stage in a playful mock sword fight, while the two men continue their more savage battle upstage. It is a beautiful piece of stage juxtaposition and even more interesting in adding some theatrical nuance to the fact that Volumnia made Coriolanus into the brutal warrior that he is. Here, then, even while the elder Martius fights for his life in a battle that will eventually lead to his exile, his young son is at home, playfully being taught the same lessons by the same mother.

Unfortunately, this moment was a but that, quick, fleeting and not to be repeated or matched for the rest of the evening.

I labored over writing this review. I want to support and help strengthen our local theater scene, not tear it down. Yet, there must be a place, besides whispered conversations at a late night bar, where dissatisfaction with our local theaters can be expressed. I was not satisfied with this production of Coriolanus. It represented to me why live theater is not more popular and why Shakespeare, in particular, is often avoided. Seattle Shakespeare Company can do and has done much better. I look forward to returning to their theater to have a markedly different experience next time and writing a very different review.

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