Shakespeare’s tale is set during a time of strife in early Roman history, when the kingdom is morphing into a republic—which it will remain for nearly five centuries. A grain shortage threatens political chaos when Caius Martius (the towering Dion Johnstone), a disdainful Roman general, makes his distaste for the plebeians clear and is forced to leave Rome to fight the Volscian army led by Tullus Aufidius (a lean and hungry Matthew Amendt) who has always harbored a simmering hatred for Martius. After several troubling attempts, Martius and his army manage to defeat the Volscian city of Corioli, after which he is given the honorific new name of Coriolanus.
Just as Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower did centuries later, Coriolanus, urged on by his powerful mother, Volumnia (a startling, stinging Lisa Harrow), uses his military success as a springboard for a high political office, Consul, which he easily wins with help of two Tribunes of Rome, Sicinius Velutus (a wily Stephen Spinella) and Junius Brutus (Merritt Janson, playing cross gender to perfection) and a friend, Menenius Agrippa (Patrick Page, using his weighty voice and commanding eyes brilliantly).
Of course, complications ensue as the too-proud Coriolanus charts his own downfall, leading to the play’s odd coupling of the fuming Aufidius, still stung by his defeat, and Coriolanus, in a revenge attack against Rome, laying the groundwork for the above-mentioned loyalty lottery.
Whispering and shouting in his ear are mommie dearest, Volumnia, Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia (a beautiful, regal Rebecca S’Manga Frank), his dutiful son Martius (a wide-eyed Oliva Reis) urging him to resist temptation to wreak revenge on Rome and he suffers for his honorable decision, an ending almost too difficult to watch at such close quarters.
Other characters include two generals of Rome, Comininius (a sly, almost comic Aaron Krohn) and Titus Lartius (Zachary Fine, using a quiet intensity to persuade); and Virgilia’s close friend and confidante, Valeria (Christina Pumariega, clearly enjoying her closeness to this hero’s wife).
Sexton and his design team have turned the Barrow Street Theatre into a multi-level playing area with the audience literally sitting inside all the action and often risking being splashed with sweat and fake blood. Brett J. Banakis’ stark set and lighting and the simple costumes designed by Ásta Bennie Hostetter allow focus on the drama. Fight director Thomas Schall and movement director Sydney Skybetter take full advantage of the fit cast.
Coriolanus (through November 20, 2016)
Red Bull Theater at Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.redbulltheater.com
Running time: two hours and thirty minutes, including one intermission