A non-politician stumbles into a high position that he is ill-suited for, with disastrous consequences, in “Coriolanus,” which is currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. If you doubt that it’s a timeless story … well, you haven’t been paying much attention to the news lately.
Greg Derelian makes for an appropriately imposing title character — a great soldier but a not-so-great ruler — in this first-rate production of one of Shakespeare’s most politically profound tragedies. Directed by Brian B. Crowe, a Shakespeare Theatre mainstay for more than 20 years, it is being presented at STNJ’s indoor theater in Madison while the giddy parody “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised)” continues its run at STNJ’s outdoor stage, down the road a bit in Morris Township.
The Roman citizens are restless at the start of the play, angered by a food shortage and suspicious of authorities. The nobleman Coriolanus, meanwhile, is proving his mettle on the battlefield in a spectacular manner, and his ambitious mother Volumnia (Jacqueline Antaramian) persuades him, against his better judgement, to try to become a consul (one of the two men at the top of the Roman government).
The public supports him at first. But his abrupt, haughty manner turns them against him – with conniving tribunes Brutus (John Ahlin) and Sicinius (Corey Tazmania) speeding up the process — and he has to go into exile and, eventually, meet his own bloody end. (Since this is a tragedy, this doesn’t exactly require a spoiler alert.)
Coriolanus does not have villainous intentions, just an overabundance of pride, and an unwillingness to soften his words to win over his subjects.
When he first encounters a group of protesting citizens — carrying signs saying things like “Corn for All!” and “Feed the People!” — at the start of the play, he says: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues/That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion/Make yourselves scab?”
When one of the citizens responds, sarcastically, “We have ever your good word,” Coriolanus replies: “He that will give good words to thee will flatter/Beneath abhorring.”
Tristan Raines’ modern, stylized costume scheme has the above-it-all politicians garbed in white, and red frequently showing up in somewhat steampunk-like clothes of the bloodthirsty citizens. There are other modern touches throughout as well, such as Sicinius carrying a clipboard.
Fight director Doug West helps make Coriolanus’ prowess in battle particularly vivid. Richard Block’s set designs are gray and stately, with a sculpture of a large bird (an eagle?) looming above. (In a key line, Coriolanus compares the citizens to crows who “peck the eagles.”)
The moral of the story: You really need years of experience to do something well. You can’t enter the top rung of a profession as a novice and expect anything good to happen.
As I said earlier, this 17th century play could not be more timely.
The play runs through July 24; visit shakespearenj.org.