Review: CORIOLANUS at Avant Bard

A late Shakespeare tragedy with a game console

By: Mar. 06, 2024
Review: CORIOLANUS at Avant Bard
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The historical Coriolanus, if he existed at all, was Rome’s most fearsome fighter, trained as a child, excelling as a warrior-leader and able to conquer whole other cities sometimes single-handedly. Even so, James Finley, who portrays the title character in Shakespeare’s tragedy in an eye-opening co-production by the Avant Bard Theatre with Longacre Lea, may be working even harder.

Ever at the ready in fighting stance in a fight zone outlined by red lights, he responds to audience direction as they step up individually to order “JUMP,” “TURN RIGHT” “CROUCH” or “ATTACK.” Like a digitized warrior in any video game, he has to do it all — before the production begins, and during the intermission, all while an incongruous James Bond theme tinkles in the background. 

Then there’s all the acting and fighting in the production itself. Finley, in addition to an actor is a noted fight choreographer (though not for this production, where Bess Kaye, assisted by Gil Mitchell, are listed as fight choreographers). So he is quite well trained when crossing swords with all the fighters he takes on in the lit arena, doing dances of violence that almost approach ballet if they weren’t so dangerous. I guess it’s no surprise he also has a gig as a pro wrestler in Virginia, performing as Dragonheart.

All of this action and video game play may be what’s necessary to draw in young audiences to this lesser known late tragedy by the Bard (but one that T.S. Eliot, for one, said was better than “Hamlet” a hundred years ago). But Longacre Lea, in its first staging of a play in nearly six years, is after all, a company whose motto is “Physical Productions of Cerebral Works.” 

Director Séamus Miller of Longacre Lea aims to retell the story “through a trauma-informed lens.” As such, the video game commands are a way to make the audience “directly involved and implicated” in the training of a warrior celebrated for brutality but ultimately rejected for his later inability to get along. 

The joystick is not the only connection between the modern day and the 5th Century BC setting. At its heart is the story of a deeply divided society torn between the demands of people and the ruling class above them. The message is so direct, “Coriolanus” was one of the few Shakespearean plays occasionally banned in the last century — by France in the 1930s for the fascist elements, and again in postwar Germany for its extreme militarism. 

Today, it’s remains relevant in a country that’s seen overthrow attempts in recent memory right in our metropolitan area. And as central as Finley is to the drama — always in the center playing court until he abdicates — the level is raised by the two adults who have raised him to be who he is, great actors both, Kimberly Gilbert and Eric Hissom. Though I was thrown initially by Hissom wearing plastic-rimmed glasses, he’s very good as the senator Menenius Agrippa in explaining the dilemma, particularly in the famous “stomach” speech that describes the strata of an early democracy. 

And Gilbert’s Volumnia brims with the emotions and expectations of motherhood.

The production gets a lot out of the rest of the ensemble of just a half dozen, with Saron Ariaia a standout as the main foe of the opposing army and two, Samuel Richie and Shayna Freedman, appearing as oversized Big Brother-like tribunes through video screens on either side of the stage in the round. 

Aside from these screens and the business before and between acts, there isn’t excessive attention paid to the video game aspect — though there’s a clever point when Coriolanus defects and the screen cries “ERROR.” 

As effective as the whole production is, I was a little disappointed that in the final moment, they break the fourth wall to block the curtain call, with Karina Hilleard portraying a director who says she’ll spare the crowd the usual  PTSD speech as she assembles her actors. It breaks the tension and the play’s spell just as a regular curtain call would, but does so just a few minutes too early.

The co-production is served well by the costumes by Alexa Casandra Dumistra, with Rome’s denizens in white, natural fabrics and the warring Volscians all in black with red piping, like uniforms from “Tron.” Tom Carman’s sound design and musical bed works well with the crackle of Soloman HaileSelassie’s lights whose center ring is lit from above by four white lights.

There’s something particularly immediate and urgent addressed in a play dating back to 1609 — and not just because of the nod to video game consoles, which turns out to be only there as a way to help lure people into the drama. Instead, this “Coriolanus” demands we look at how we create warriors, what we depend on from them and how they can ever be assimilated back into society

Running time: Two hours plus one 15 minute intermission. 

Photo credit: James Finley as Coriolanus. Photo by Kathleen Akerley

“Coriolanus” continues through March 23, co-presented by Avant Bard and Longacre Lea at Gunston Arts Center Theatre 2, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington, VA. Masks are required for performances March 16. Tickets available online.  




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