By James Foritano
The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company under the stars plays “Coriolanus,” at Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common through August 12, with appropriate sound and fury.
Coriolanus, the dark hero of this Shakespearian tragedy was himself born under the star of Mars, the Roman god of war. He is a shaggy alpha wolf – who comes alive wherever, whenever and however Rome’s vast empire is being threatened – need ‘recruits with strong death wish’? Coriolanus is your man!
Trouble is, this eminent Roman warrior is nowise at home with the messy complications of a republic, where the demands of the citizens require tending to. “Coriolanus” opens with a food riot. Grain is running scarce and the enraged populace is demanding that the aristocrats open up the corn stores and share the superfluity with their hungry bellies.
Coriolanus is like: “What???” To him, these raggedy, garlic-breathing plebs look like the barbarians he’s used to fighting. Worse! The barbarians, at least the ones who linger at the battlefront, are filled with blood lust — like himself. These “citizens” want only to be filled with… corn?
Fortunately, the Volscians are knocking at one of the Roman Empire’s many closed doors and so, with kisses on their lips, the aristocrats wave Coriolanus off just before he turns a run-of-the-mill corn riot into a full-scale rebellion.
Shakespeare, with the eye-to-posterity of a universal genius, has clothed the Romans and the Volscians in modern battle dress — the Romans much spiffier. The skies clatter with helicopters, the trenches with machine guns and rocket launchers.
The front dissolves into a victory for the Romans, and so, with many a fond backward look, Coriolanus and some close comrades — the few who are still alive — head for home and hearth with weapons still smoking.
Then, Coriolanus runs for popular office on a platform of scarce grain, scarcer freedoms and – not to worry – perpetual war.
Any production of Coriolanus has to solve the dramatic problem of whether this later play of Shakespeare’s is a tragedy or more of an inadvertent comedy. There are stirrings in the dialogue which point to something deeply human in this otherwise one-dimensional protagonist, a personality not yet smothered by the war-centered ethic of Rome, not quite finely honed to only an instrument of battle fit to be covered in blood, wiped off and temporarily sheathed.
Unless these stirrings are heard and counted, we might be watching a gorier Marx Brothers comedy with many a lunatic prompting winding up the springs of the action.
In one sense, Coriolanus is all about the lunacies of empire, the dysfunctional breadth of the gap between leaders and led; and further, whether peace can ever be the sweet fruit of war, or only an uneasy interregnum of preparations for the next war.
Surely, “Coriolanus” is a rich parable for our times, and the protagonist an apt emblem of that parable. But is Coriolanus also us? Does he harbor, beneath his Kevlar vest, a human heart with all its ambivalent longings, or only the steady pump (But what a pump!) of an action figure a la Stallone, or Schwarzenegger?
Go and listen. Even treat yourself to one of Ben and Jerry’s available C-Oreo-lanus Sundaes. And wonder, after that last spoonful, whether “Coriolanus” be consumed at one sitting, or is replete, like The Bard’s best, with many a toothsome after-taste?
(The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “Coriolanus” continues through August 12 on Boston Common. Admission is free, but you can reserve a seat for a $30 tax-deductable donation; reservations must be made 48 hours in advance and are non-refundable. For dates, show times or to reserve a seat, visit http://www.commshakes.org.)