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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 30, 2016

Dion Johnstone
Photo by Carol Rosegg

War may be hell, but in Red Bull Theater's fierce and fiery production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, it is politics that is the ultimate destroyer of lives and souls, especially for the mighty warrior at its center.

Red Bull is known for its blood-and-guts explorations of Jacobean drama, often focusing on the visceral and depraved depths of human enterprise. If you like your Shakespeare unsullied and straight up, you should probably stay away. But for fans of Red Bull's work (and count me as one of them), this production at the Barrow Street Theatre of the bard's late and seldom-seen tragedy does not disappoint.

Dion Johnstone, a powerful performer with lots of Shakespearean acting credits to his name (his style and manner may remind you of his fellow Montreal-reared actor John Douglas Thompson), plays the title character. The Roman general is unequaled in battle and is highly respected and honored for his military successes. Upon his triumphant return to Rome, he is deemed a shoo-in to be elected as consul.

Certainly, he has the backing of the Roman Senate and the patrician class (represented by Patrick Page as Coriolanus's great friend and supporter Menenius Agrippa). But watch out for the commoners, the "rank-scented many" as Coriolanus refers to them. Represented by their tribunes (Merritt Janson and Stephen Spinella), they, too, have a voice in the election. And they are not particularly happy at the moment, given that they are forced to scrabble over meager amounts of grain while the wealthy seem to have a surfeit. Anyone connected with the high and mighty is bound to be met with deep resentment and suspicion.

Coriolanus, at first a reluctant candidate, is egged on by his tough and ambitious mother, splendidly played by Lisa Harrow, who is thrilled when he comes home covered in blood ("O, he is wounded; I thank the gods for it!"). But even as he accepts the Senate's anointment, he refuses to sink so low as to humble himself before the hoi polloi in order to earn their approval. That decision will cost him the election, lead him into exile (where he joins forces with his one-time enemy Tullus Aufidius, well-acted by Matthew Amendt), and result eventually in his complete and utter destruction.

Director Michael Sexton, of the New York Shakespeare Society, conducts the play at a fever pitch, with so much action that the creative team includes both a fight director (Thomas Schall) and a movement director (Sydney Skybetter). Brandon Wolcott's sound design also contributes mightily to the general sense of mayhem. The production is not the least bit reticent about highlighting the connections between the unfolding events onstage and today's era of populist anti-government outrage. While Shakespeare's language remains blessedly intact, expect to see contemporary costumes (by Ásta Bennie Hostetter) and references to our own looming and contentious presidential election. Red Bull has gathered together a winning team with a great ability to bring Shakespeare's words and the play's themes to pulsing life.

Through November 20
Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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