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Theater Around Town: ‘Coriolanus’ Storms The Common

Most Shakespeare companies play it safe in these tough economic times with familiar titles. Steven Maler, the artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, is living more dangerously with “Coriolanus,” not the first play to come to most folks’ mind when thinking of the Bard, even after Ralph Fiennes brought it to the big screen last year.

Maler has done an increasingly good job of rounding up some of the best actors in the area — drawing on Trinity Repertory Company, American Repertory Theater alumni, and Boston’s admirable pool of midsize theater thespians.

Chief among them in this production — and pretty great every other time he’s stepped foot in Boston — is Fred Sullivan Jr. as Menenius, a Roman senator (think Olympia Snowe) who spends the play trying to calm the angry mob (think Tea Party and Occupy movements), the scheming politicians (think of your least favorite politicos), and Coriolanus himself. Who is he? He’s a war hero who Menenius and others think is just the ticket to rule Rome and bring it out of its paralysis.

Maler obviously thinks this is a play for our times and makes a provocative case for its place in the Stratford-on-Avon hall of fame. Perhaps too provocative. Except for Sullivan, the production is played at fever pitch for most of its nearly three hours. One half expects Sullivan, like his character, to turn to his fellow actors and say, “You’re all better than this. Will you people please get back on your medications!”

Of course, that’s what the play is about — when politics pushes everyone to the extremes dialogue and governance becomes impossible. Shakespeare sorta said it before Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The problem with the play is that it is undemocratic to its core. As great a humanist as he was, we can’t expect Shakespeare to be a small-d democrat anymore than we can expect him to be free of the anti-Semitism and sexism of his time. What we do expect of Shakespeare is his ability to be more nuanced and psychologically astute than his contemporaries, which he was. And Shakespeare is both in “Coriolanus.” Even if he sides with the soldier’s distrust of the mob, he created a Coriolanus whose stridency would have made it impossible for him to be an effective governor.

That being the case, why not a strident production? For the same reason you don’t write a boring play to suggest ennui. At this level “Coriolanus” loses nuance and the characters lose the charisma that would further their argument, at least dramatically. It’s one thing to portray Coriolanus as a cross between Oliver North and Benito Mussolini, it’s another to portray him as Nicholas Carrière does, as a North or Mussolini without any magnetism. Carrière and the rest of the actors, particularly Karen MacDonald as Volumnia (Mama Coriolanus) do much better in their rare quieter moments. David Remedios has provided one of the cleanest sound feeds for Shakespeare on the Common but — even with competing jackhammers — could come down a notch, like most everything else in the production. (I should also mention that rain was a problem with the preview performances leading up to Wednesday’s press opening.)

Maler, meanwhile, does everything else right. It’s staged beautifully with Cristina Todesco’s wooden ramparts, suggesting a nation perpetually at war with itself and the giant coffins awaiting its warriors. And Maler asks all the right questions. At what point is compromise selling out one’s soul? At what point is lack of compromise egomania that threatens any possibility of making a difference? The production ultimately doesn’t make a case for the greatness of Coriolanus or “Coriolanus,” but it does make a case that it’s a play that has volumes to speak of how we live our political lives today.

Performances of “Coriolanus” on the Common plays through Aug. 12.

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