The False Voice of the “People” and a Cast of Thousands!

David DeSantos
Photo by Ian Flanders

Calendar shmalendar - the way this critic knows summer has arrived is by attending the premiere of Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s repertory season at its airy Topanga Canyon amphitheater. A joyous annual ritual for me is making the trek out to this woodsy nook north of Malibu where WGTB extends the conventional notion of the stage.

 

Audiences are familiar with theatrical terms such as “the fourth wall” and “theater in the round.” But ensconced on a hillside amidst a forest, WGTB gives us what could be called “three dimensional theater.” This year’s exceptional opening production, William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, is an excellent case in point. The tragedy’s mise-en-scène is barely constrained to the stage per se, as the ample-sized (and talented) company makes full use of the slopes behind the boards and the surrounding sylvan glade. They troupers troop up and down the aisles, gather and cavort behind the bleacher seats and so on, making full use of the Topanga landscape. Corio’s choreo gives new meaning to Shakespeare’s dictum in As You Like It that “all the world’s a stage.”

 

Especially spellbinding are the mob and battle scenes, co-directed with panache by Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall (who also co-star as Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia and Senator Menenius Agrippa). Today’s jaded auds are used to CGI and other special FX rendering virtual reality on the silver screen, but this live presentation of Coriolanus, with throngs of thesps clad in togas and sandals duly dueling is extremely exciting. With more actors than this math-challenged reviewer could count, WGTB vividly brings to life fights to the death in ancient Rome. (BTW, Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 directorial debut is a superb screen version of Coriolanus, starring Fiennes in the title role.)

 

Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s colossal class struggle extravaganza, pitting plebians against patricians. Caius Marcius (David De Santos, who has a John Krasinski vibe) is a military leader whose victories on behalf of the Roman Empire have earned him the exalted title of “Coriolanus.” Afflicted by hubris - that bugbear of Greek tragedies - the general seeks to become Rome’s consul, a state title similar to that of a 21st century prime minister or president.

The man who would be consul, however, is insensitive to the needs and demands of the plebes and the commoners rise up to oppose this false prophet of the proletariat. The masses are roused by the people’s tribunes, including that stage stalwart known for his elegant, eloquent elocution Alan Blumenfeld, who plays Sicinius Velutus stirring up rebellion and rabble. Call it “democracy.”

 

Other standouts in the cast of “thousands” (or so it seems as they swarm WGTB’s stage and forest primeval) include Max Lawrence as Tullus Aufidius, general of the army of the Volscians, a rival tribe in Italy which clashed with the Romans. Last summer, Lawrence - an eight-season member of WGTB’s company - also delivered a heartbreaking performance as Boxer, the Stakhanovite steed exploited by a revolution betrayed in the Theatricum’s stellar stage adaptation of George Orwell’s anti-Stalinist classic Animal Farm. This summer Max co-stars in an epic as a sort of “Lawrence of Volscia.”

 

Ellen Geer is as flowery as she is, to use a politically incorrect term, “bitchy,” as Volumnia eggs her son Coriolanus on. De Santos portrays this martial mommy’s boy as suffering from inner turmoil, and perhaps a mother complex compelled him on to a life of conquest and a quest to become consul in order to compensate. (Paging Dr. Freud!)

 

As is this shapeshifting thespian’s wont, Melora Marshall once again has a gender bending role as the historical Senator Menenius Agrippa, who was also a Roman consul and in real life male. But in 2018, who’s really counting anymore? In recent years California has had three women U.S. senators, and now Justice Democrat Alison Hartson is vying to represent the Golden State in that not so august body. Besides, WGTB has long been noted for its bold nontraditional casting that has, for example, propelled nonwhite actors into lead roles once the sole domain of Caucasians.

 

So from 491 B.C. to 2018, what does Coriolanus mean? I’m not sure what Shakespeare had in mind about Elizabethan England under the monarchy, but certain truths are eternal throughout the ages. As the Directors’ note states in WGTB’s program: “Coriolanus cries out to be seen this season!” Why? Can it be that Trump is a modern day false voice of the people, the billionaire wolf in populist clothing? The idea that this self-obsessed, petulant pig with his affluenza-addled mind gives a damn about America’s working class defies credulity. It’s interesting to note that both figures have references to the nether ends in their names: CoriolANUS and TRUMP. History is a practical joker and it remains to be seen if Consul Donald will befall the same cruel fate as Coriolanus does. Let’s hope so!

 

In the first act the company’s timing was occasionally off, but by the Act II the thesps were off and flying into the wild blue yonder. The minor mistakes are easily forgivable as the opening night glitches of a season that extends through September and includes Arthur Miller’s Blacklist/McCarthyism parable The Crucible, Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden, William DuBois’ Caribbean slave revolt saga Haiti and WGTB’s Shakespearean perennial and favorite of children of all ages, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As for your erstwhile critic, my summer nights’ dream is to enjoy all of these gems under the stars, seeing theater in the great outdoors the way the Greeks intended viewers to. And with Coriolanus WGTB is off to a great start.

 

Coriolanus is playing in repertory through Sept. 23 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.

 

L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting “Marx @ 200: The Marxist Movie Series” (https://www.gofundme.com/marx-200-the-marxist-movie-serie). The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” co-authored by Rampell is now available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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