By Manning Harris
The Shakespeare Tavern is currently running a bold, clever, and powerful production of “Coriolanus,”one of Shakespeare’s lesser produced plays, running through June 14. Directed by Drew Reeves, some of the city’s best actors are giving robust and magnetic performances.
I don’t know why “Coriolanus” isn’t performed more frequently: It’s got everything modern audiences are supposed to crave. Violence (plenty), political trickery and intrique, treason, a touch of aberrant sexuality, blood (and more violence), ferocious family politics, tons of suspense—everything our sensational, gun-obsessed society loves is here.
But I’ve never seen the play until now, and I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare. Of course, you know that since the demise of Georgia Shakespeare, the Tavern is Atlanta’s sole full-time dispenser of the Bard; although any company can do Shakespeare when it wishes—the scripts are public domain.
But the Tavern, which many of its die-hard fans like to think of as our own Globe Theatre (it does resemble it, with an atmosphere unlike any other theatre in the nation), is happy and fearless and up for the challenge, and proves it with this bracing “Coriolanus.”
The time is ancient Rome. Caius Marcius, later called Coriolanus (Jonathan Horne), is a fearless warrior, born and bred for it, largely by his terrifying mother, Volumnia (Heidi Cline McKerley), probably the most unpleasant woman in Shakespeare. She loves battle and blood (“Oh, he’s wounded. I thank the gods for it.” She’s talking about her own son. Anything’s better than defeat or peace.)
Meanwhile, Coriolanus is a patrician, and because of his military triumphs over the Volscians, led by Aufidius (Jacob York), is up for consul. But to win it, he must plead for the votes of the plebeians, for whom he has thinly disguised contempt. Brutus (Tony Larkin) and Sicinius (Kathryn Lawson), two clever tribunes, consider Coriolanus an enemy of the people; they conspire to get him disbarred before he’s even elected. When Coriolanus, furious, speaks out against the idea of popular rule, the two tribunes get him declared a traitor and driven into exile.
All this political stuff is clearly over Coriolanus’ head. He’s quite dunderheaded, except in battle. When banished, he yells at the crowd: “You common cry of curs!…I banish you!” He then, incredibly, storms off to his former enemy Aufidius to seek his aid in marching against the Romans, his own people.
Battle he understands; this he can do. Amazingly, in a scene only a genius playwright could pull off, Aufidius and Coriolanus not only reconcile, but become quite tender and loving with each other (all in good taste, never fear), at least for awhile. Mr. Horne and Mr. York are both superb.
The two men decide to march on Rome; together, they are an unstoppable fighting force. But guess who intervenes: The wily Volumnia, with Coriolanus’ wife and child (Kirstin Calvert, Joseph Masson) in tow, prostrates herself before her son and pleads for him to change his plans. She soon has him in tears (the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world).
“Coriolanus” is explosive; its fight scenes are kinetic and right in front of you—no special effects. The large cast features many fine actors: Sam R. Ross (a fine, subtle performance), Vinnie Mascola, Chris Kayser, Kelly Criss, Antonia LaChè, Nicholas Faircloth, J. Tony Brown, Stephen Ruffin, Ralph del Rosario, and Trey York.
The role of Volumnia requires a force of nature, and Heidi Cline McKerley delivers.
Jonathan Horne, in the title role, gives a thrilling, multifaceted performance, with range and power. I remember his “Elephant Man” (who could forget it?) from last fall. His star is definitely in the ascendancy.
The Shakespeare Tavern is giving us a large gift with this production. It could be your only chance to see “Coriolanus” live; if you love theatre and Shakespeare, you must go.
For tickets and information, visit shakespearetavern.com.