Shakespeare takes on the futility of war

Iris Fanger

Actors’ Shakespeare Project comes bearing a movable but blood-drenched feast, as it relocates to the old Somerville Armory with a smartly produced revival of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.”

Working with small numbers but large imagination, director Robert Walsh, aided mightily by former Stomp percussionist, Stephen Serwacki, brings the opposing Roman and Volscian armies to life with vigor and reverberating beats of metal on metal.

Benjamin Evett, the troupe’s artistic director, plays the invincible soldier, Coriolanus. He is courageous in battle, filled with pride at his achievements, and scornful of any man who stays home in bed when there are wars to be won. That he is quick to anger and unable to listen is the part of the personality that leads to his downfall.

Evett shares center stage with the remarkable actress, Bobbie Steinbach, as his mother, Volumnia, a woman as blood-thirsty and power-hungry as Lady Macbeth.

Steinbach turns Volumnia into a Roman version of Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” minus the songs. She would be the warrior; she would be the victor and hailed by the populace, except for the accident of gender.

And like Lady Macbeth with her husband, Volumnia can drive the invincible Coriolanus to tears at the sound of her voice, resulting in his inevitable, tragic fate.

Walsh’s idea to bring in Serwacki and his Stomp-based expertise at making sounds out of ordinary props extends the effectiveness of the multiple battle scenes, capped by the duel between Coriolanus and his mortal enemy, Aufidius, leader of the opposing army. As choreographed by Karen Krolak, artistic director of the dance company, Monkeyhouse, the two men face off in a metal cage on wheels, clanging their swords on its bars as they fight for dominance, while being rolled across the stage.

The actors fall and somersault through the aggressive battle scenes to punctuate the dangers. These scenes galvanize the entire production, along with Walsh’s spreading the action from the main stage throughout the balconies that overlook the expansive floor space at the re-christened Center for the Arts.

If there’s a fault, it’s in the uneven abilities of the acting company at wrapping their tongues around Shakespeare’s verse. Evett and Steinbach are impeccable in turning the poetry into accessible language, as is Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Junius Brutus, one of the Tribune’s elected by the people.

However, some of the other actors are less capable of delivering the rhymes the way Shakespeare intended. The fault may lie partially in the high-vaulted ceilings that tend to swallow the sounds unless the actor is turned directly toward the audience.

It was also somewhat disconcerting to see Shakespeare’s story moved from ancient Rome to more modern times, with Walsh and designer Molly Trainer clothing the company in 1920s dress: suits and fedoras for the politicians, Russian revolutionary costumes for the mob that first approves then turns on Coriolanus.

With projections of Russian posters on the rear wall, the image of more recent history is completed, and works well to underline the secondary theme of the people’s rise to power during Rome’s transformation from a monarchy to a Republic.

If one is looking for contemporary resonance, this “Coriolanus” brings echoes of the precipitous lust for war in Iraq by the members of President Bush’s administration that sought revenge without listening to advice or considering the consequences. It also serves as yet another reminder of the continuing relevance of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly “Coriolanus,” which is less often staged.

The Patriot Ledger