Review: Politics and Power Clash in Theatricum Botanicum's CORIOLANUS

By: Jun. 07, 2018

Shakespeare was a master at writing tragic heroes with fatal flaws. He knew that what lurks in the hearts of men is often a complicated jumble of both good and evil, and he demonstrated that dichotomy in his protagonists. Macbeth's ambition, Othello's jealousy, and King Lear's arrogance eventually outweighed their better qualities and destroyed them. For Coriolanus, it is the sin of pride that is ultimately his undoing.

Review: Politics and Power Clash in Theatricum Botanicum's CORIOLANUS
David DeSantos as Coriolanus

Theatricum Botanicum takes on Shakespeare's stinging drama CORIOLANUS this summer on its outdoor stage in Topanga Canyon and offers an intriguing look at the cynicism of politics and power. The work includes a massive cast of 45. Some are seasoned veterans and many are young actors in the early stages of their careers, including a sweet Geer granddaughter (Quinnlyn Scheppner). Together they bring forth the early days of Rome when democracy was in its infancy and mob mentality could turn the tide in the blink of an eye.

Coriolanus is a soldier of unparalleled ability who has emerged victorious in the fight to save Ancient Rome from its enemies. Although he is a hero, he is begrudgingly lauded by both commoners and noblemen alike for he lacks the personable qualities most men possess, tact and humility among them.

A petulant aristocrat with an unbending will and a disdain for those below his station, no opinion means more to him than his mother's. The actions he takes in pursuit of her love and acceptance, combined with his hotheaded pride, mean a bloody end is inescapable in this last of Shakespeare's tragedies.

David DeSantos plays the title role with the fiery temperament of a spoiled child. He's brooding, irritable, and loud, flexing his sinewy muscles with the uncontained entitlement of an elitist whose vainglorious opinion of himself trumps anything else. He's all for country but he owes allegiance to no man.

In this frame of mind, he is ripe for attack, and his angry countrymen swiftly lash out after one of Coriolanus' verbal tirades. Banished by an ungrateful people, he decides to exact revenge by aligning with the enemy. But, when he falters under the continuing influence of his mother, he is undermined by the jealousy of the Volscian ruler, Aufidius (Max Lawrence).

The Geer women are supremely in their element in the production. Ellen Geer's Volumnia is a deliciously troubling blend of domineering mother and giddy girlfriend, which blurs the lines of familial norms. She flutters like a butterfly and strikes like a viper, always adjusting her strategy to find the best method of persuasion. Costume designer Robert Merkel has made bubblegum pink her accent color, a choice that not only sets her apart from everyone else on stage, but also reminds us this is a woman whose feminine wiles are always at play.

For Melora Marshall, Merkel has created a cloud of white to clothe an aristocrat with a silver tongue. Marshall takes on the role of Menenius, a senator typically cast as a man, but the gender change works so beautifully it is a wonder the role isn't played by a woman more often. And, oh, the honeyed tones of her skillful machinations.

She talks the crowd down from revolt with the fable of the belly, a pretty speech about how one part of the state cannot exist without the other, and repeatedly sculpts the conversation with wit and humor. The sweet mockery in her smiles and the pleasing cadence of her voice is enough to win over any naysayer in the crowd, and as the sun goes down and the stage lights begin to glow, her face takes on a luminous sheen, the wonderfully unexpected result of actor/character/costuming & lighting all magically syncing. It's rather breathtaking given that all you can see is her face. Geer and Marshall also co-direct.

A few of the actors weren't quite ready for opening night so there were some line fumbles and mistimed cues during the performance. The run continues through September so I'd expect that will be cleaned up in due course. A bigger goal for the inexperienced actors would be to summon up the kind of warrior-like comportment of an actor like Dane Oliver (responsible for the vivid fight scenes and also appearing as a Volscian Lieutenant) that goes beyond grunting and tentative crowd shuffling. There are no small parts, especially when you are on as large a stage as Theatricum's, and the audience's eye is always roaming. Be the sturdy presence that helps ground the production, for no one is ever really in the background here.

I'd love to see this ensemble again at the end of the season to observe how the accrued stage time has helped its less-experienced actors grow in confidence and carriage. Regardless, one of the sheer joys of summer in Southern California is Shakespeare outdoors and, in this wooded corner of the hills, it is an exceptional delight. Come early and bring a picnic to enjoy before the performance. It can get cool in the canyon at night so pack a sweater or blanket for additional comfort.

The tragedy of politics is that one often loses sight of one's place in the grand scheme of things. Like so many others on the modern political stage, Coriolanus's worst enemy is himself. Shakespeare knew how to convey the troublesome inner workings of such a tragic hero in freefall, and Theatricum Botanicum's exploration of that deterioration lands like a trenchant warning to those of us watching. It is indeed a timely play for our time.

June 2 - September 23, 2018
Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290

Photo credit: Ian Flanders

Review: Politics and Power Clash in Theatricum Botanicum's CORIOLANUS
L-R: Christopher Wallinger, Brian Patrick McGowan, David DeSantos,
William Maizel, Franc Ross and Paul Barrois
Review: Politics and Power Clash in Theatricum Botanicum's CORIOLANUS
Tim Halligan, Christopher Wallinger, Alan Blumenfeld, Brian Patrick McGowan
and Michael Hoag (facing Blumenfeld)



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