The Bard is enjoying a big boost in Baltimore this season.
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has already put on productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Richard II" since opening its downtown theater in September. Baltimore Shakespeare Factory has a staging of "The Comedy of Errors" on the boards now.
And the newest theatrical troupe in town, Cohesion Theatre Company, just debuted with "Coriolanus."
Unlike the other two ensembles, Cohesion does not plan to make Shakespeare a mainstay. Contemporary works are scheduled for the remainder of the inaugural season.
Where those pieces will be performed has yet to be determined. Cohesion has negotiated a temporary residence in a Highlandtown storefront that counts a church and tire store among its previous users. It's a large, bare-bones space with a good alt-Balt vibe.
There have been discussions between Cohesion a couple of other companies about teaming up to share the Highlandtown venue. Such a plan could help create enough business for the landlords to consider a long-term lease.
Like "Richard II," this is one of the infrequently encountered plays by Shakespeare. It may not be his most brilliant or arresting accomplishment, but this study of power and politics in ancient Rome offers a great deal of rich characters, motivations and fateful decisions.
There's a fascinating personal connection between the playwright and the text, which opens with an unruly group of citizens demanding an end to the high price of corn and the hoarding of same by landowners. Shakespeare wrote "Coriolanus" in the early 1600s, not long after there had been riots by peasants in England and some folks had accused the playwright of hoarding foodstuffs.
Shakespeare may or may not have been a bad guy at the time. The rioters may or may not have been justified. No wonder, then, that "Coriolanus" is filled with ambiguity.
The title character is a war hero clearly destined to be a ruler of Rome, but he has an ego as big as the Colosseum and an attitude more condescending than Simon Cowell's. Throughout the play, Coriolanus vacillates between noble and horrid, thoughtful and thoughtless.
The Roman politicians seem sensible one moment, self-serving the next. The common folk turn from legitimate gripers to hideous mob at the drop of a toga. Representative government seems like a good thing until it doesn't. Clearly, a lot of fascinating stuff here to ponder.
The Cohesion production unfolds on a bare stage, surrounded by walls covered with graffiti in Latin (scenic design by Casey Dutt). Heather Johnston's costumes add a Roman touch to modern dress. There are only minimal props (a broom turns up occasionally as metaphor).
Everything moves at a brisk pace under the direction of Alicia Stanley, co-founding artistic producer of Cohesion, underlining the volatility of the play. The cast jumps in with plenty of spirit and some technical unevenness, a combination not uncommon with DIY theater troupes. (Things should get firmer as the run continues.)
As Coriolanus, Dave La Salle, does not provide enough expressive breadth to flesh out the fatally flawed character. He goes in for a lot of Kirk Douglas-style acting-through-clenched-teeth; the growling is occasionally balanced by barely audible whispers. More nuance could do wonders for his intense portrayal.
Matt Ancarrow's performance as Aufidius, arch-nemesis of Coriolanus, is much subtler and deftly multilayered. He handles the almost erotic fight scenes with particular flair. There are also sturdy, colorful contributions by Sean Coe and Frank Mancino as two of the basically decent Romans who try to save Coriolanus from himself.
Nancy Linden is quite eloquent as Coriolanus' mother, making the most of the extraordinary scene — one of Shakespeare's most poetic and affecting — when a delegation of women attempt to save Rome from his wrath.
Moments of comic relief are nicely handled (having Bobby Henneberg in the ensemble helps; he showed his knack for humor in Chesapeake Shakespeare's "Midsummer"). And in the final moments, which make "Coriolanus" a genuine tragedy, the production achieves considerable impact.