Sunday, May 28, 2000

REVIEW: Coriolanus

Bloody 'Coriolanus' overcomes slew of problems

        Coriolanus has been a problem play for 400 years, and it's a problem for Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, albeit a great-looking one.

        It's also a reminder of how far the festival has come in two years.

        Coriolanus is the tragedy of a mother-loving, ancient Roman warrior persuaded to be a political leader who just as quickly is rejected by an easily swayed mob. He's a modern character who's like a box of Belgian chocolates for a therapist.

        The show has been on the waiting list at Shakespeare for several years, and one shudders to think of a production pre-Giles Davies to play the title role.

        This season the festival can afford age-appropriate guest artists, and Dale Hodges is the only actress in town capable of playing our hero's militant mum. (She also nobly does double-duty as the Roman she-wolf founder of Rome.)

        For all that Coriolanus invites modern-day parallels, for once, and happily, director Jasson Minadakis has resisted taking the modern interpretation route.

        The cast is, for the most part, outfitted like Greco-Roman wrestlers. The women are draped a la Roman goddess statuary and more than once mount pedestals to effectively freeze into position.

        The festival has managed to eke out additional playing space by eliminating its miniscule “backstage,” and it's worth it. One of Mr. Minadakis' great assets is his ability to create compelling stage pictures.

        Cast members frozen against a back wall to create a fresco by candlelight — gorgeous. (New tech director Todd Edwards is working wonders.)

        The choice to play out battle scenes by having the antagonists dipping their hands in bowls of “blood” brings new meaning to the term “blood bath” — arresting, although the brilliant color looks fake. To send a real chill through the audience, bring it down a couple of tones.

        Now, for those problems. Interesting as Coriolanus' pathologies are, this isn't among the Bard's best-written plays, even with three-plus hours to play with.

        Marvelous as Mr. Minadakis is at establishing point-of-view, his greatest weakness is allowing supporting players to take easy outs in exploring character.

        Dan Kenney chooses to make his role as a Coriolanus pal that of a first cousin to Hamlet's infinitely boring and annoying Polonius. All you want is for him to go away.

        Tribunes Marni Penning and Nick Rose aren't helped by the script, but they're less than interesting and capable of much better. Brian Isaac Phillips, at least, shows dimension as an enemy.

        Mr. Minadakis is due for a month of summer study in London. It will be interesting to see what he learns.

        Despite the improved, reconfigured playing space, there are still problems for audience members beyond the first few rows. You won't see anything at ground level, this time an open trap door that catches a rain of grain. Unfortunately, it spilled off and on through the first act.

        More distressing than distracting, too many supporting players can't project clearly, so dialogue is garbled by the time it reaches the back of the house. Even Mr. Davies, when he starts talking quickly, becomes mired in the room's sound problems. Only Ms. Hodges' syllables ring like bells.

        The easy answer is to get to the theater at least 30 minutes before curtain and grab a good seat.

        Coriolanus, Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, 719 Race St., through June 11. 381-2273.


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