The virtues of Theater in Asylum’s production of #Coriolanus lie, as the Volscian general Aufidius says, “in th’ interpretation.” Though Paul Bedard’s social media savvy staging of Shakespeare’s play occasionally trips over the jittery tech at its center, it consistently redeems itself with wildly inventive maneuvers, including costumes straight out of Aeon Flux, impressively choreographed callisthenic dance fighting, and a surprisingly bubbly sense of humor.
William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which I discussed briefly earlier this week, hinges upon simmering social unrest amongst the lower class members of Roman society, and those, like the seasoned warrior and would be politician Coriolanus, who would exploit or suppress that energy for their own gains. Bedard’s canny adaptation begins by straight up replacing the corporeal citizens of Rome with Twitter accounts. Tweets roll in constantly on three projection surfaces in the Under St. Marks space, so when the people’s onstage representatives, Sicinius and Brutus, incite the unruly mob, they are actually affecting their revolution via social media platforms. In addition, cast members live tweet the show, occasionally even posting photos from the performance in real time. Audience members are for once encouraged to leave their mobile devices is on, to join in the conversation using the hash tag “#Coriolanus.”
It’s a resonant and very fun concept that nicely mirrors the populist themes at the heart of Shakespeare’s play, yet the limitations of Kelly Coburn’s media design occasionally hinder its impact. For one, the tweets that are projected and interacted with by the cast are scripted (by necessity), so we do not even see the live tweets. Even worse, sometimes the projected tweets are just a repeating loop; I must have seen the same message about wheat prices a dozen times. Some of these messages are spoken aloud in voiceover to give the actors onstage something more to respond to, but there are frequent hiccups in the timing. I have seen a lot of theater that depends upon performers responding to sound cues like this, and have learned to recognize the singular look of panic on an actor’s face when a crucial piece of dialogue doesn’t come out of a speaker on time. And while there is an elegant simplicity in using white text on a black field for the projections, it feels like a missed opportunity to add some more visual personality to the piece, especially since there is no real scenic design to speak of.
Though arguably the cornerstone of the production, the misfire of the Twitter component feels almost irrelevant when compared to the other bits of insightful pioneering Bedard brings to his adaptation. In Shakespeare’s play, the wildly unpopular Coriolanus depends upon the esteem and support of a very small social circle; characters like his mentor Memenius, his commanding officer Cominius, his doting wife Virgilia, and his imposing mother Volumnia remain his steadfast allies, even after he is exiled by the people of Rome. In #Coriolanus, Bedard brazenly merges all of these characters into one, leaving only Volumnia. It’s a revision well met by the abilities of Madeline Reed, whose performance seamlessly synthesizes the roles of mother, lover, political advocate, and soldier into a much more interesting personality. Now it is Volumnia who accompanies Coriolanus into battle; now it is she who tirelessly defends him to the people and senators of Rome. With this simple edit, Bedard makes apparent what Shakespeare only alludes to: Volumnia is the only person that actually matters to Coriolanus. Reed’s best moment, when she slowly relishes in snapping a cellphone picture of the people’s tribunes begging her aid on their knees, essentially summarizes the mission statement and glib attitude of the entire production.
As Coriolanus, Russell Peck cuts a mean despot, especially outfitted in Dav Burrington’s chicly apocalyptic costuming. By committing fully to the more childish aspects of the character, Peck brings a considerable degree of personality to an otherwise grim and vacuous figure. In the climactic scene where Coriolanus goes to Aufidius for help, both Peck and Martin Boersma exhibit a profound grasp of the language, ably navigating its twisted-up mix of aggression and intimacy. They also both deftly execute Katie Palmer’s distinctive fight choreography, which utilizes short staves and stylized flourishes of slow motion.
Perhaps the biggest delight, though, was Julia Giolzetti and Julie Robles in two minor comic roles towards the end of the play. Sure, they also play Sicinius and Brutus in the first half, but those roles are so stuffy, so stilted by their constant interaction with the social media effects. One can almost sense their giggly relief when they finally don Muppet-like costumes as two of Aufidius’ cronies, who speak in contemporary English and can never seem to find enough wine. The modern language should probably be blasphemous, but Bedard makes a valid point – these days we’ve lost our ear to distinguish between the poetic language that Shakespeare uses to represent the higher-class characters, like Coriolanus, and the prose he uses for the lower-class characters. In Shakespeare’s day, these “clown” characters by design would have spoken in language closer to that of the audience to help lighten the mood. In this tradition, Giolzetti and Robles entertainingly puncture the stuffy political atmosphere, and at just the right moment.
Here, as elsewhere, #Coriolanus finds entertaining ways to be inventive, but is never false to the nature of Shakespeare’s play.
Presented by Theater In Asylum at UNDER St. Marks 94 St. Marks Place, NYC. Through July 20 (212) 868-4444, or www.horseTRADE.info