Tears of a Clown
By JAMES VANCE World Staff Writer 12/11/01
Those who ignore history are fated to make the rest of us repeat it
The new production by the Midwestern Theater Troupe is not your father's "Coriolanus." It isn't Olivier's, John Houseman's or Henry Irving's either; in fact, there's much of it that isn't even Shakespeare's.
"Coriolanus" is one of Shakespeare's least user-friendly plays, a tragedy about a man for whom it's virtually impossible to feel any sympathy. A Roman war hero who tries to ride his victory into the political arena, the title character has been raised by an imperious mother to believe in his own superiority over the common man.
It's a bad time for such an arrogant elitist to toss his laurel wreath into the ring, for food shortages have made the people rebellious and easily swayed by Coriolanus' political enemies. Banished from Rome, he joins forces with the Volscian general over whom he'd scored his great victory. Together they plan to bring Rome to its knees -- but the conflicting imperatives within Coriolanus' soul ultimately combine to save his birthplace while destroying him.
For better or worse, that's what the play is about. Less visceral and more austerely intellectual than most of Shakespeare's tragedies, it's a hard sell for any theater company. However, that's no reason for Midwestern's director (and, in this case, leading player) John Cruncleton to try to simplify his task by turning the play into something easier to digest.
With the stated intention of staging the tragedy as a black comedy and a "clown show," Cruncleton has filled his production with cavorting crowds in unisex costumes, Roman consuls in towering conehead hats and people toting around tape players that emit background noises. There's a Chinese dragon-like apparatus that represents the Roman people, and a life-or-death battle scene that's played as a wrestling match over possession of a pair of rubber gloves.
In short, a lot of energy and effort has been expended in order to recreate (evidently unknowingly) the freewheeling experimental theater of the 1960s. You don't have to remember back 30-plus years to be aware that this has long since become the province of precocious grad students ... but those who ignore history are fated to make the rest of us repeat it.
It's a pity, for there's a good deal of genuine talent on display between the sideshows. Sally Hedgecock turns in a lively performance as a bitter and sarcastic Roman citizen, George Nelson and Richard Slemaker are memorable as scheming consuls and Sara Cruncleton is a breath of fresh air as the gossip Valeria.
Best of all is Larry Latham as Menenius, Coriolanus' friend and political backer. Despite the useless clown nose he's forced to wear throughout the show, Latham contributes the most humane and realistic performance of the evening.
Director Cruncleton is an actor of ability, but he seems curiously out of place in his own production. In the midst of his messy Roman happening, he's earnest and charismatic and surprisingly buttoned down. His penchant for rattling off the big speeches suggests a discomfort with Shakespeare that can be resolved with experience -- but it's his refusal to treat the play as a tragedy that undermines not only his performance but the entire play. By transforming Coriolanus' self-destructive pride into simple stubborn petulance, he's turned the whole affair into a pointless shaggy dog story.
Perhaps the most frustrating flaw in his performance occurs as well in those of Heather Smith (as Volumnia) and Dale Sams (as Aufidius). Resolutely determined to avoid bombast, they underplay their roles in realistic but frequently inaudible fashion.
Overplaying Shakespeare should be avoided, but not at the cost of not hearing him. But though its flaws are serious, this failed "Coriolanus" is never boring, and possesses admirable energy and dedication. Even leached of its tragic core, it's diverting enough to be worth your attention, for any troupe which cares as much as this one deserves support even when they err
Once they learn that the source material is more than a mere vehicle for their own inspiration, they could get it just right. And that's worth the wait, as long as they don't ask us to wait too long.
"Coriolanus" continues at the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. Fourth St., Thursday-Saturday. Call 583-8487 [As of February 2007, 633-8666] for information. (And bring a coat and a lap robe. The theater is a terrific little black box, but even Shakespeare might have been at a loss to express how cold it is in there.)
James Vance, World entertainment writer, can be reached at 581-8372 or via e-mail at email@example.com.