I’m writing this post only days after the death of Prince and, let me tell you, it’s surreal and very strange. To be working on a show that is so heavily influenced by Prince, mentions him multiple times, and likely would not exist with out him is difficult to deal with but also a place of solace and comfort. Prince created the Minneapolis Sound and defined our local music scene in many ways. His loss only makes me realize how important music is in my life and the life of so many others. And that’s exactly what the show is about – the influence of music on a whole generation.
So, I thought I’d do another behind the scenes look as I’m in rehearsals again, by taking a look at music in a show. And what better show to focus to use for this exploration than Complicated Fun. This show, described by playwright Alan Berks as 55% music, combines a variety of genres with 26 different songs by 16 different artists. It explores not only the punk scene but also R&B, funk, folk, pop, and styles that transcend genres in Minnesota music. It’s unique sort of musical – it doesn’t always follow the typical expectations of music in shows (being sung by characters, replacing dialogue with songs, etc.), it isn’t a juke box musical, but neither is it a tribute concert or play with music. It’s been dubbed a mix-tape musical and, dramaturgically, that’s the perfect way to describe it.
The process for this show started back in January 2015 during the History Theatre’s Raw Stages. I wasn’t a part of this process but I did watch the show as a house manager from the back of the house, in awe of how the ensemble had learned the music in only a week. In the spring, I came on as dramaturg to prepare for the summer workshop on the script, which took place in July. Music director Nic Delcambre played all of the music on guitar and piano and sang the majority of the music. This process was focused on the writing of the script, the story involved and how certain events progressed, what music to include, and how music was integrated into the work. Another workshop was done again in January 2016 (which I wasn’t present for and can’t speak to) and more time was taken outside of these workshops for the our director, playwright, and music director to discuss the music in the show.
A unique caveat to a show like this that includes music written by other people is that all rights for the songs performed must be obtained in order to use it. This affected what songs could be used and what artists – when you see the show, you’ll note that Prince is referenced but never performed beyond a few phrases. Rehearsals for the band began shortly before the cast began in April, with our musical director teaching the band the songs and transcribing and adapting them for the ensemble. The full band includes Delcambre on guitar and keyboard, Blake Foster on guitar, Mitchell Benson on bass, and Riley Jacobson on drums/percussion. Added elements to the band are the use a drum machine for synthesized percussion effects and a sound module controlled by the keyboard and produces all the sound from it, in a variety of electronic timbres (and can be especially heard in “Funkytown” and “Let Me Let You Rock Me”).
A primary focus throughout the process was to keep the sound of the arrangements as close to the original songs as possible to stay true to the work and style of the artists. There are certain songs that have been arranged differently than the original for musical theater effects – for instance, Husker Du’s “Don’t Want To Know” is slower and more lyrical to create a certain mood for the scene it appears in. The actors were given access to the original recordings in order to learn the songs and hear the unique qualities of each piece and each artists in the show. On the first day of rehearsal for the cast, a full read-through of the script was done with all the music being performed by the music director on piano and two guitars. As rehearsals progressed, time was taken to teach specific parts to the cast members (such as the Tetes Noires’ piece “American Dream,” which has two cast members singing and one of our ensemble members singing and playing violin). Transitions into pieces – especially the switch from the Replacements’ “I Hate Music” to Greg Brown’s “Downtown,” which requires a change from electric to acoustic guitar and the addition of finger picks – and vamping during scene changes also became an important part to work, as did cueing in the band, especially through character cue (record clerks putting on a tape or record, a physical gesture from a singer, etc). Once the band joined in rehearsals right before tech week, it became especially important that cues were clear so everything could be kept tight and neat.
When we started tech, we began focusing on how sound appears and runs through the the show, such as the timing of when music comes in, making sure that the song fits into the action onstage, and lining up choreography and lines so that everything fits together just right. Another large part of this process was the technical aspects – fitting actors and musicians for mikes, balancing their sound levels against the instrumentals, and balancing spoken dialogue over musical moving parts. The glorious brilliance of going from a loud punk party to being able to hear a conversation in the party is an impressive feat that the band, our sound designer C. Andrew Mayer, and electrician Josh Stallings deserve serious kudos for.
The use of the band in this show is really wonderful and unique – they stay onstage during the entire show and produce what in film would be called diegetic sound, or sounds coming from the particular scene or location, rather than added behind as underscoring or sung by the characters to convey the story. The band itself represents certain bands in the Minneapolis scene at this time, paying homage to the Suicide Commandos with the use of a Les Paul, having band members represent the Replacements and Husker Du, and incorporating certain members itself into characters in the show.
In this story about the often overlooked Generation X, the collaborative importance of theater has never been clearer. With an incredible cast, band, and production team, I am continually in awe of the work that is being produced. This is the largest show I’ve worked on in terms of people involved and it’s been amazing. We’ve got an amazing production group with set designer Michael Hoover, choreographer Cark Flink, prop designer Lisa Conley, costumer Amelia Cheever, and lighting designer Kathy Maxwell. It has been such a joy to be a part of this process and I know it will be an absolutely brilliant production. But don’t take my word for it – come see it yourself!
Complicated Fun is written by Alan Berks and directed by Dominic Taylor. It opens April 30th and runs through May 29th. Tickets can be purchased on the History Theatre’s website.
I’ve had the opening line to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land stuck in my head the last several days: “April is the cruelest month.” Given the cold, blustery day I found myself at Nautilus Theater to see The Fantasticks, it was fitting. But this lovely play took me out of April’s cold cruelty and right into the warm, romantic days of September.
In this production, director Ben Krywosz breathes new life into this classic show with shifting the typical casting. The lovers Matt and Luisa are played real-life partners Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr, taking on roles meant for ingenue/ juvenile actors. Seeing established actors play these parts is a dream come true – I’m a massive fan of their work and the nuances they bring to younger characters being older and more worldly is brilliant. Playing the parts of the fathers Hucklebee and Bellomy are Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Christina Baldwin. Having these roles taken on by women makes these characters more focused on being parents and guardians, rather than playing into any patriarchal roles or gender-specific parenting attitudes. William Gilness is suave and cunning as the narrator, El Gallo, and Brian Sostek is a delight as the Actor Who Dies. This all-star cast has marvelous chemistry and, in this fable-like musical, portray the story with poise and mastery.
Nautilus’ intimate theater space – though small it may be – works brilliantly for this stripped-down production. The simple but lovely set designed by Victoria Petrovich and built by John Hegge is clever and captures the fantastic nature of the story without a lot of bells and whistles. The music, directed by Jerry Rubino, is performed by piano and harp and balances wonderfully with the vocal ranges of the cast, as well as having some wonderfully done transposing (according to the talk-back afterwards sticking to the original keys despite the different ranges for the fathers).
This show is an absolute delight. Attending on an industry night, it was wonderful to hear the discussion afterwards of how the story not only resonated with the audience, but the use of different generational casting, allowing for a deeper romantic story to take place that looks at how age affects relationships and how different roles are performed based on age. From the moment “Try to Remember” begins at the top of the show, I was swept off my feet into a delightful, poignant, heartfelt world that truthfully acknowledges the difficulties of growth and changes in relationships. With El Gallo’s throwing Matt and Luisa into a world no longer full of simple romance but also cruelty, and hardship, the show grapples with the struggles of growing up, the harshness of the world, and also the ability of relationships to grow back together even after heartbreak. This musical is full of hope and, in the cruelness of April, there’s nothing more marvelous than remembering September.
The Fantasticks is playing at Nautilus Musical Theater in lowertown St. Paul now through April 19th. Ticket and show information can be found on Nautilus Theater’s website.
Currently in rehearsal at the History Theatre is the new show Complicated Fun, written by Alan Berks, directed by Dominic Taylor, and music directed by Nic Delcambre. Focusing on the 1980s music scene in the Twin Cities, this slice of living, local history involves a vibrant look at the Minneapolis sound, the history of First Avenue and bands such as the Replacements and Husker Du, and a passionate story of an often overlooked generation. I’m lucky enough to be the dramaturg for this production and it’s a piece that’s very near and dear to my heart. Whether you’re a fan of 89.3 The Current and First Avenue, passionate about Minnesota history, or just curious to learn more about the diversity of music in our state, this show is a must-see. And, to give a taste of what’s headed your way come April 30th, the History Theatre hosted a special preview event with the band, cast, Chris Osgood of The Suicide Commandos, who set the scene for punk in Minneapolis and throughout the US, and Steve McClellan, former manager of First Avenue during the 1980s.
Performing Curtiss A’s “Laugh It Up,” Husker Du’s “In a Free Land,” the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular,” and The Suicide Commandos’ “Complicated Fun” (the namesake for the show) was the show band, with Nic Delcambre and Blake Foster on guitar, Mitchell Benson on bass, and Riley Jacobson on drums. Part of the cast, including Stephanie Bertumen, Bowen Cochran, Erik Hoover, Andrea Wollenberg, Joseph Miller, and Skylar Nowinksi, performed two excerpts from the show focusing on the community and music scene.
Featuring 26 songs by 16 different artists, and a wide breadth of genres, this show is all about the music. And it’s all Minnesota music. If you ever had a song change your life, discovered a mixtape that perfectly expressed how you felt, or found a band or music scene that expressed who you were or what you wanted to be, you’ll love this show, even if you aren’t familiar with the bands featured. And if you are familiar with the bands, then you need to see this show like you need air to live. (This is an exaggeration, but only slightly.)
If the music alone doesn’t entice you, then the talent certainly will. The cast is incredible and lovely and, while we’ve only been rehearsing for a week, it seems the script already feels comfortable. Then again, much of the cast has been work-shopping this show since January of 2015. I also cannot praise the band enough. Last night was the first time we saw them perform together (as they’ve been rehearsing separately from the cast) and I think I can speak for us all and say we were all incredibly impressed. Even if you’re the biggest Husker fan and thinks that no one can shred like Bob Mould (and you are most certainly entitled to your opinion), you’ll love these covers that are incredibly faithful to the original. Don’t take my word for it – check out an audio clip with part of the band performing at Roseville Library. And if you still aren’t convinced that you need this show in your life, then come for the choreography. There will be stage diving. And a routine to the Jets’ “Crush On You.” But seriously, why are you still reading this? Go get tickets already!
Complicated Fun is playing at the History Theatre from April 30th through May 29th, with previews April 28th and 29th. Ticket prices and show information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.
Currently playing in rep with The Normal Heart at the Lab Theater, is New Epic’s staging of Coriolanus. Before I begin to review this production, I have a confession to make: this is my favorite Shakespeare play as well as being a show that fundamentally changed my life. I saw this performed in London at Donmar Warehouse in January of 2014 with Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus and Hadley Fraser as Aufidius. I loved the production so much that I watched it again via National Theater’s film broadcast and for a while, it convinced me that all I wanted was to be strictly a Shakespearian dramaturg. When I heard that New Epic would be doing this play, I was elated.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Donmar production during last night’s opening show. The Lab Theater itself is similar to Donmar (an old warehouse, with bare brick walls and an intimate space) and certain staging choices were also reminiscent – the use of the ladder during the first battle scene, chalk being used to draw on the floor (though in a different manner), Coriolanus’ fate at the very end. I’m curious to know if there are common tropes or directorial choices for the show or whether Donmar’s production was an influence, or if it’s just uncanny coincidence.
The similarities end there, however, and Joseph Stodola’s production is unique. The play has been adapted, cutting out much of Shakespeare’s more tangential portions but also cutting out the character of Virgilia, Coriolanus’ wife. In her place, Volumnia (Michelle O’Neill) takes on two roles – that of Coriolanus’ mother, but also his confidant and empathizer. Before I get ahead of myself, here’s a quick summary of the play – Coriolanus (Torsten Johnson) is unpopular with the people, due to his harsh attitude and his lack of empathy for the plebeians. However, Rome is also at war with the Volscians, and Coriolanus, who has been brought up as a warrior, trained by his mother and right hand man of sorts, Menenius (Zach Curtis). The Volscians, led by Aufidius (Michal Wieser) hate Coriolanus but also admire him for his strength and prowess as a warrior. Coriolanus defeats the Volscians and returns home, triumphant and with new wounds that Volumnia is proud of. As is tradition, Coriolanus is meant to show off his wounds as an emblem of his honor and success in battle. However, he is stubborn and headstrong and refuses, instead promising the people to show them in private, in order to gain there votes. Realizing they have been lied to and Coriolanus has absolutely no intention of keeping his word, the people turn against him, using the Tribunes, Brutus (Grant Sorenson) and Sicinius (Adam Qualls) to banish him from Rome. Knowing “there is a world elsewhere,” Coriolanus leaves his tearful mothers and joins with his former enemy Aufidius to plot Rome’s downfall.
As was the case in The Normal Heart, the cast remains outstanding, with Antonio Duke as Titus and Jucoby Johnson as Cominius, both members of Coriolanus’ army. Shakespearian dialogue can be a bit tricky, but for the most part it was clear and succinct, not at all falling into the dry, dull space that people all too often seem to think Shakespeare occupies (and sometimes does). There is also a modern feel to the editing of the script, making the scene move at a quicker clip and parsing down the lines so the move more smoothly. There were a few instances where the lines didn’t land quite right to my ear, but overall it was slick and seamless.
The cutting of Virgilia and emphasizing Volumnia in a different way was interesting and uncomfortable. Volumnia is a bit like Lady M. from the Scottish Play and is very powerful and controlling. But this production adds a very dependent and incestuous edge to her relationship with Coriolanus. The downside of this is that it distracts from the tension between Aufidius and Coriolanus, which is vital to understanding Coriolanus’ complex nature. He turns to his enemy abandoning the life of a proud warrior, but one who is still at the beck and call of his people, to be worshiped and adored by his enemy, who is the human personification of the id and may turn on him at any moment. Having Volumnia also express such id-like passion and refocusing the play to include more of her was interesting, but I’m not sure it worked for me and I feel it somewhat overshadowed Aufidius and Coriolanus’ relationship.
Aufidius and Coriolanus’ scenes were wonderful, however, and the fight choreography was superb. The chemistry between Brutus and Sicinius was also fantastic, capturing their cunning to overthrow Coriolanus wonderfully and adding an almost mind-reading feel to the way they thought and interacted. Having this play in rep with The Normal Heart makes for some very interesting comparisons between shows, especially between the characters the actors are doubled up on. While I might not like all the adaptions to the script, the way the two shows work together is really wonderful, especially in terms of characterization. It’s also interesting to track the props and see how they shift from show to show and take on different meaning.
This show also takes on a certain power in an election year, with so much focus being on voices being heard, fears of tyranny, and political personas. What I love about this play is that it doesn’t deal with the Rome we know in its glory days, but an early, unstable Rome recovering from a previous dictator and struggling to find its way. New Epic’s way of capturing this is very powerful and one that produces an interesting echo when seen along side a show such as The Normal Heart which deals with establishing a different kind of power in culture. I’m thoroughly impressed and can only wish companies had the ability to shows in rep more frequently.
Coriolanus is directed by Joseph Stodola and is playing now through April 16th at the Lab Theater in Northeast Minneapolis. Ticket prices and information can be found on New Epic’s website.
This is an abridged version of the post I wrote after seeing Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse in London in January of 2014. The tone of this is rather different from what I use on this blog, so be prepared for random allusions to other media and over-eager fangirling. Hopefully this will provide some more background on the plot this Shakespeare tragedy as well as my thoughts on it. For a review of New Epic’s production at the Lab Theater, read it here.
I would like to preface this post with the admission that the fact that I saw this show, in the flesh, in London is A) exceptionally fortunate, lucky, and privileged, B) somewhat phantasmagorical and surreal that it actually occurred, and C) one of the most humbling and moving experiences of my life. If I could personally thank everyone at Donmar Warehouse associated with the show, I would do so, but I am afraid this post will have to suffice.
What does one say about Coriolanus? It’s a tragedy, that’s certain. One knows that from looking at the title page of Shakespeare’s script: The Tragedy of Coriolanus. This isn’t going to end well for the title character. But the play doesn’t even start well for the title character. It begins with some very angry citizens wanting to kill Coriolanus for driving up the price of grain. In Josie Rourke’s staging at Donmar, this is preceded by graffiti being panted on the wall in Latin, reading “grain at our own price”. From the beginning, there is a sense of violence, tension, and unease. Sitting in the back row of the circle, the second level of the Donmar, with my back to a fire escape, I was rather terrified every time I felt a bit of wind on my neck or a particularly intense bit of action occurred onstage that someone was going to appear behind me with a sword and I was going to find myself even more immersed in the play than I already was.
Whether you are familiar with the storyline or not, the staging and expression of the actors makes this play engaging and watchable. During the intermission, I told Tyler, my friend/theater companion, that I had somewhat forgotten I was watching a Shakespeare play. I meant this in a strangely positive way – I was so immersed in what I was going on I wasn’t thinking about the transitions from Act 1 to Act 2, I knew things had been cut out but I wasn’t concerned with them as I have been in other Shakespeare plays I’d seen performed. At the end, I knew that certain things had been tweaked but it didn’t occur to me until later and I didn’t mind. Language in Shakespeare is rarely a problem for me but in this staging, with what felt so seamless and smooth from act to act, scene to scene, I forgot entirely that the language I was hearing was not how we speak day to day on the street. It sounded so natural and so clearly expressed that I forgot that what I was hearing was in anyway unlike how I would have a conversation with a friend, or how I’d debate an issue with a coworker.
Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus was absolutely marvelous. Coriolanus is a complicated character – he’s not a likeable guy, he reacts rather angrily and forcefully and belittles the plebeians. And yet, Shakespeare wants us to feel empathy for him, to see him as a man driven by urgings to seek glory and power. Hiddleston does this phenomenally well. At the beginning, when he brushes off the concerns of the citizens and later, when yells at his troops in a harsh very un-Henry V sort of way, the immediate reaction is dislike. Caius Martius, later Coriolanus, is quick to anger, violence and is kind of what I’d picture Cato from The Hunger Games being as an adult – a person who was trained early to be really good at one terrible thing – killing. (And speaking of The Hunger Games, according to the program from the play and from Donmar’s Twitter feed, President Snow’s first name in the books is Coriolanus. Guess my seeing all of the allusions to the books isn’t entirely unmerited.) Also like Cato, Coriolanus is greatly subjected to the expectations of his society and the expectations held about himself. He is both prideful and reluctant, wanting to claim what he feels is rightfully his in becoming consul, but refusing to show his wounds gained in battle in order to gain votes.
I’ve asked myself where my opinion of Coriolanus began to shift during the show, when I really began to feel sympathy for him, and it was shortly after the epic battle scene, staged with brilliant effects of falling embers and ashes, in which Coriolanus is presumed dead, only to reenter, bathed in blood. My edition to Coriolanus describes this scene as him being “like a new-born in battle. It is as if, to be a man, the ‘fatherless’ Coriolanus must reborn of his own volition in the masculine setting of war” (Crewe xxxviii). In this particular staging, I saw this scene a bit differently. This is less about becoming a man but becoming a public spectacle, of going for soldier to war hero. Once Coriolanus enters, a horrific, epic sight, he has transgressed from ordinary into completely extraordinary. (But perhaps this is because I was watching Jack Gleeson’s talk on celebrity culture before writing this).
After this scene, in which Hiddleston is covered in so much blood that I truly felt myself growing nauseous, the play shifts into what I’m going to call the shower scene. I’d heard about this part before from the internet reacting to the fact that a shirtless, blood-covered Hiddleston showers onstage. Fans lauded the sexiness of this scene. I would like to add my two cents and assure you that though Mr. Hiddleston may be a very, very attractive man, this scene was not sexy and I was in utter agony throughout the whole thing. If you have trigger warnings with injuries or gore or such, I encourage you to skip the next section in case they might bother you. (Edit/ fun fact: This is how I learned that I am in fact afraid of blood, especially stage blood. Not ideal timing.)
Here is how the scene goes – Coriolanus strips off his shirt, blood matted in his hair and streaming down his neck, revealing a very gruesome wound on his left arm (I was facing stage left and thus got a very clear view of its gruesomeness). He proceeds to stand under a torrent of water, shuddering at first from the cold, then proceeding to slowly, agonizingly, let the water clean his wound. Somehow, without dialogue, only with physical actions, body language, and pained moaning and screaming that just recalling it makes me shudder, Hiddleston makes you feel as if you are Coriolanus, experiencing that piercing water pouring into your wound. This scene felt outrageously real to me and I am still wondering how the make-up artists made the wound look so real and how Hiddleston can possibly express such levels of pain night after night.
By this point in the play, I start feeling rather badly for Coriolanus. He’s gotten really beat up in battle, his worst enemy Aufidius, “a lion that I am proud to hunt,” is still out there fuming and plotting against him, his mother is happy with his return but wants more from him, and now he’s trying to win an election while a lot of people still hate him. He also shows a certain tenderness towards his mother, Volumnia, his wife, Virgilia, and his friend and supporter, Menenius, which contrasts nicely with his rage and anger elsewhere and makes it harder to simply dislike him. Coriolanus has depth and complexity. He longs to do something else with his life that doesn’t involve killing people for a living. Becoming consul could allow that but he must always conflate his warrior status with being a politician. Or perhaps he is unable to be any sort of politician but that who does always conflate his warrior/soldier life with politics but doesn’t want to be other-ized as this victor, as a war hero. I could postulate on Coriolanus’ mental state all day so I’m going to stop myself before that’s all I end up writing about.
This brings me to another area of interest for me and one I wish I knew the answer to. Upon reading the play, thinking about it over the course of a few months, and then upon seeing it, I found myself changing in how I thought of the characters. At times I agreed that Coriolanus was a tragic hero and at other times he seemed more a tyrant, a future President Snow that was stopped before he could go too far. Other times he was a political pawn, used to garner support for something he seemed somewhat detached from. And yet he still had his pride, he yearning for respect and admiration, to be seen as worthy of great accolade. I wonder, and continue to wonder, how actors peg down such mutable characters. Is there a way of fixing on certain interpretations so that each night you know what sort of Coriolanus you’re playing while still allowing the other versions to simmer beneath the surface, to allow the audience to pick up on these possibilities while still expressing clearly the sort of character you are presenting? Are there still little things that shift about? Some nights, are a word or two given with more anger, more hostility than other nights? Does Aufidius ever present himself with slightly more hostility? Does Coriolanus ever feel a slight bit more forlorn? These are the things I wonder before and after seeing shows, upon wondering how an actor will present a character and seeing that, while a portrayal is clear, I still see so much simmering beneath the surface.
On the note of complicated characters, I’ll pick up with the two lead women of the play: Volumnia and Virgilia. Volumnia is described by Crewe as being powerful, perhaps even more powerful than her son, using him as a sort of surrogate to gain her own status (Crewe xxxvi). In fact, Crewe even claims that Coriolanus might be more valuable to her as a dead hero than a living one (Crewe xxxvii). I was surprised, however, when Volumnia seemed rather hysterical at parts. At first, I found this a little off-setting – why was such a complex character acting so weak? And then I stopped myself. She wasn’t acting weak – hysterics is not a sign of weakness. Volumnia uses her “feminine weaknesses” to stay ahead of the men in her society and make sure that she is in an advantageous position despite her son’s mistakes. If she supports her son, but also distances herself from his actions, she can stay ahead of the tide and keep herself being dragged down into his misfortune. And yet she tells him that “action is eloquence” and yearns for his success. At the end, it’s her encouragement of him to leave Aufidius and the Volscians that is his downfall. However, it rids Rome of the problem he brings to them – a man who has been ousted from his homeland, taken in by their enemies, but longs to a place where he might have been heralded as a hero. At the end of the play, Volumnia returns, viewing her son’s dead body while rose petals fall around her. Perhaps this suggests that she is the true hero, ridding Rome of a future tyrant. Perhaps this is to suggest that she only wanted the best for her son but he refused to compromise to her ideals. Perhaps it suggests that she destroyed him and that there is a tragedy in a misbegotten relationship. Perhaps its none of these. Deborah Findlay makes for a marvelous Volumnia and presents her as a character that is oftentimes is as contradictory as her son.
Virgilia is also a complicated character, made so partially due to her limited amount of lines and little known about her relationship with Coriolanus. Despite the limits of her character in the script, Birgette Hjort Sorensen gives a lot of depth to Virgilia and performs her marvelously. Virgilia and Coriolanus have a son and in Josie Rourke’s staging, the couple seems to have a very warm, affectionate relationship. So when Coriolanus is banished, Virgilia’s reaction is very striking and powerful. Dressed in a tight black dress and heels with a sophisticated air, she seems the sort that perhaps has imagined being a senator’s wife or a First Lady. This seems, however, to come from a little of Volumnia’s pressures, something that comes out when the two women first appear and Volumnia tells Virgilia to enjoy the time she has away from her husband. This staging of the play makes further allusions to it when both women come to visit the banished Coriolanus and Volumnia pushes Virgilia to confront her husband, which she does rather sexually, sliding into his lap and kissing him while caressing the inside of his thigh. As this builds, Coriolanus pushes her off, seeming shocked, suggesting that something about this is offsetting or unusual. While they would seem to have a passionate, romantic relationship, perhaps this suggests that her actions are used to manipulate him as well. Perhaps Coriolanus is a changed man and cannot feel the range of emotion he would like to have towards his wife at this moment, or perhaps what he feels is too painful to deal with. Or perhaps, given his recent interactions with Aufidius, he simply cannot deal with more intense physicality.
This brings us to Aufidius, a character which powerfully represents the intermingling of sex and violence which Hadley Fraser does with great panache. He seems to simultaneously want to kill Coriolanus and tells him this, while making a lot of sexual insinuations and, in this staging, even kisses him. A case in which homoerotic subtext isn’t very subtext and is performed as such paired up with the pivotal characters of Volumnia and Virgilia makes this play a whole lot of heated emotions. Crewe describes Coriolanus as preferring a plane of “contradictory passion and predatory interchange” in Rome, a harsher, more violent world that could Freudianly be read as consumed by the id (Crewe xxxvi). The interactions between Coriolanus and Aufidius are jarring and confusing, and I love it. There’s no assumptions made about sexuality in the show, nor does it suggest anything about romance. It’s a instance of mutual obsession, in which the two men are muddled up in hate and love and it is expressed in various ways. Complicated this with the idea that Aufidius is meant to be a double of Coriolanus and one could begin to wondering if this is more a commentary on self-adoration and pride as well as masculine superiority and patriarchal ideals, as readings like Crewe’s take on.
Last but not least there is Menenius, who is suggested as a father-figure for Coriolanus and a bit of a Falstaff figure of support. He acts as a bit of comic relief and helps show an endearing, positive side to Coriolanus’ warlike nature. To Menenius, Coriolanus is a hero and a good man, someone who deserves to hold the place of consul, and who could lead Rome to greatness. However, between Coriolanus’ unwillingness to compromise and the citizens’ insistence on Coriolanus to reveal his wounds and keep the promises made to them by those surrounding Coriolanus, Menenius’ hopes are not to be. Menenius seems to be the smooth talker with a comic streak, which Mark Gatiss brings out marvelously, and he acts as the one who can assuage the politicians while Coriolanus rages and spouts whatever comes to his head before the assembly. There is something more restrained about Menenius, as if he were a sort of press correspondent for a rather uncouth politician. While he urges the Tribunes to believe that Coriolanus can be a good consul, Coriolanus with simultaneous darkness and humor snarkily persuades the citizens to fill out the ballots in favor of him. And when the citizens find they’ve been misled, they oust him and harass him, pelting him with tomatoes. Just scenes earlier, rose petals were dropped on a welcomed victor, and suddenly the tides turn and Coriolanus is now beaten with rotten fruit. And yet the worse for him has still not occurred.
I’ll leap ahead now to the end of the show, which I will summarize briefly. After being thrown out of Rome and escaping to the Volscians, Coriolanus is visited by Menenius, whom he rejects, as well as his mother, wife, and son later. They bow before him, treating him as a powerful sort of warlord. Coriolanus’ own son lays prostrate before him, an action, along with Coriolanus’ reaction, that pulled roughly at my heartstrings. In one instance, Coriolanus appears to be ignoring his mother while she speaks to him, his back turned to her and appearing stoic. But, as he was facing our side of the theater, you could see the tears streaming down his face, not in the least bit unfeeling to her words.
Ultimately, Coriolanus decides to leave and return to Rome but, unlike the play, he never leaves the Volscians. Instead of being killed by conspirators, he is killed horrifically by Aufidius himself. Remember the trigger warning about gore from before? I’m going to bring that back for the remainder of this paragraph. Roughly grabbed, hung up by his ankles and either his abdomen cut from navel to chin or his throat cut or both, he is roughly murdered, his body jerking and spraying blood across the stage. To say this scene appalled and terrified me is a gross understatement. I have seen murders in plays – I’ve seen a staging of Macbeth in which Macbeth was trussed up and beheaded. But again, it was the realism here, the uncompromising frankness and intense stage effects that has imprinted this ghastly scene on the back of my retinas for the rest of eternity. I was not expecting the play to end this way – I can’t say that anyone really was – and to then contemplate going to the stage door afterwards felt kind of perverse. Really I only wanted to curl up in a little ball behind my seat and cry for the next hour or two. These are the times I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into by becoming a Shakespeare fan.
I find it hard to really concisely summarize this play because I feel it encompasses so much. However, Crewe has given me a good way in which to do this with the line, “the one all alone is a god or nothing. To be a god in human guise is to be nobody at all, since humanity is constituted only in relation to other humans, and by their recognition” (Crewe xli). When Coriolanus worries about his words being twisted, when he longs to be powerful but by his own accords, not along the demands of the citizens, he struggles with the good old Shakespeare issues of public and private, of a ruler and a loner, of struggling to who he is versus what others want him to be.
I also haven’t managed to talk about the rest of the cast, which is a shame, because they are all brilliant. I especially liked the duo of Brutus and Sicinia, the Tribunes, played by Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger. The stagings they had as well as their expression was really interesting and makes for a great insight to political discussion and commentary on the show. But truly every member of the cast is astounding and all work together marvelously and powerfully onstage.
Despite the fact that I have managed to make this play sound like the most painful thing in existence – and would agree that it has ruined me forever, I highly recommend seeing it via National Theater screening if possible. This show really has changed my life, as a would-be academic and as a fan of theater. It is an amazing, vibrant, powerful performance, and nothing I can say will really capture how much in awe of this show I am. Theater continually inspires me with its ability to interact and engage with audiences but I felt that this production took it to a new level for me. So a thousand and more accolades for Donmar, Julie Rourke, and the entire cast, crew, and whomever else isn’t considered by those mere nouns for this absolutely marvelous show. Consider this an infinite standing ovation.
Crewe, Jonathan. Introduction. Coriolanus. By William Shakespeare. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. xxvii – xlix. Print.
With yet another world premiere in their season, Theater Latte Da is presenting the new musical, C. at the Ritz. Based off the French play Cyrano de Bergerac, this musical centers around Cyrano (Bradley Greenwald), a witty wordsmith with an unfortunately large nose. When he stops a show he dislikes to create something new out of the possibility of the moment, Cyrano shows his love for poetry and romance and simultaneous causes to theater patrons Roxanne (Kendall Anne Thompson) and Christian (David Darrow) to see each other and fall in love. However, Cyrano is secretly in love with Roxanne and is torn between confessing his love for her and helping her meet Christian. When Christian confesses that he has no idea how to express his love poetically the way Cyrano does, the cunning Cyrano decided to use his words and Christian’s face to woo Roxanne. Needless to say, this doesn’t go well.
When I saw this show on the final night of previews, director Peter Rothstein introduced it by saying that a new song had just been added and many lines had been changed. I felt this a great deal with the first act – the pacing seemed a bit off, lines didn’t land quite right, and it all felt very fresh and raw, as a piece does during workshops. The second act, however, was solid and flowed wonderfully, leaving a strong finish and very moving end. There was a lovely whimsy and magic that amplifies Cyrano’s wordy, romantic streak and the unique world the play inhabits. While the show takes place in France, it isn’t quite the France we know historically. There are many anachronistic elements and modern references thrown in and the costumes and music inhabit a place between the past and now, seeming to reference the 18th century, the early 20th century, and present day. This melds into a fable or fairytale atmosphere that suits both Cyrano’s mindset and the more incredible elements of the story.
Adding to this fantasy nature is the superb set design by Jim Smart and fantastic lighting by Marcus Dillard. Balancing this all out is the gorgeous music composed by Robert Elhai (whose work as music director was recently seen in “Sweet Land” in the History Theatre’s Raw Stages series). With strong highlights of folk tunes throughout the show, the musical scoring wonderfully embraces the audience with something that feels both familiar and strange, classical and brand new. It suits Cyrano, with all his perfections and failings, which Greenwald hits perfectly. Cyrano is full of contradictions – he hates nothing more than a hypocrite, but ends up being one himself. He is beautiful in ways he never sees and ugly in ways he doesn’t think of, layering in the melancholy of a love he cannot reveal and capturing the essence and complexity of being human.
The show has incredible cast including Bear Brummel, Caleb Fritz Craig, John Middleton, Grace Lowe, Kim Kivens, James Ramlet, Janet Hanson, Evan Tyler Wilson, and Max Wojtanowicz (who helps orchestrate the wonderful Musical Mondays the first of each month at Hell’s Kitchen – which if you’re not already going to, you should be) and has an amazing band including Sarah Burk, Luke Pickman, Matt Riehle, and music director Jason Hansen. One of my favorite parts of this show is the inclusion of the band as members of the cast, using them as characters and music present in the moment rather than just accompaniment. As a former pit musician, I adore this beyond words.
This show may be more accessible to people familiar with the original play, the film with Gerard Depardieu, or the its adaptation in Roxanne with Steve Martin (my favorite version), but the story is clear enough for those knowing nothing about the source to enjoy. I really wish I could see this show again to see how it all falls into place because once the new parts become comfortable, it’s going to be incredible. This show really brings out the romantic in me and I couldn’t keep from crying at its beauty.
C. is directed by Peter Rothstein, with book and lyrics by Bradley Greenwald and music by Robert Elhai. It opens April 2nd and runs through April 24th at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis. Ticket prices and information can be found on Theater Latte Da’s website.