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Theater Review: All the world's a stage in 'Coriolanus'

COURTESY PHOTO - Maryanne Glazebrook and Cassie Greer star as Volumnia and Coriolanus in Bag & Baggages all-female production of Coriolanus, which will play until July 23 at the Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza. Up until recently, my only exposure to Coriolanus was its place at the end of a funny line in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Despite some unanticipated rain that transformed “theater on the plaza” into “theater on the concrete floor of a nearly empty bank building,” the dauntless Bag & Baggage troupe brought enlightenment to Hillsboro area theater lovers with the opening weekend of their annual summer Shakespeare offering.

In any previous year, precipitation would have spelled disaster, but the company’s serendipitous migration into their own space meant the show could go on — and B&B made the most of the challenge.

Coriolanus’ contemporary obscurity is understandable — it was one of Shakespeare’s later plays, and there is no record of it being performed in his lifetime. It is an explicitly political work, and was adapted several times through the ensuing centuries, with each adaptor imposing his particular political perspective. Thus, it has appeared as an apology for oppressive tyrants (and critique of the unwashed masses) as well as an attack on the hubris of the wealthy and powerful (and defense of the common man).

Given the issues in current headlines, the play is remarkably relevant, and director Scott Palmer and his cast definitely trend toward the more peaceful and populist interpretations. Choosing (as he did a few years ago with Julius Caesar) to use an all-female cast amplifies the divide; there is something about strong women playing male warriors that intensifies the absurdity of a world where might is presumed to make right.

It is impossible to ignore the Trump/Sanders analogy as wealthy, contemptuous General Caius Marcus starves the Roman populace to feed his armies, while Tribunes/social justice warriors Brutus and Sicinius lead the populace in protests against the brilliant but arrogant general. Marcus defeats the dreaded Volscian army, and is awarded the title Coriolanus in honor of his victory. Attempts to elevate Coriolanus to the position of Roman Consul are thwarted by (depending on your perspective) an ungrateful rabble or the noble common man.

Banished from the city, Coriolanus responds by betraying his homeland and joining forces with Aufidius, leader of the Volscian forces. Coriolanus’ mother, wife, and another Roman lady plead with him to spare the city, and his response leads to the play’s final tragedy.

Cassie Greer is utterly fierce as the seemingly indomitable Coriolanus, radiating the character’s strength, confidence and complete ignorance of political realities. Bethany Mason (as Volscian leader Aufidius) rivals Greer’s ferocity, but brings a subtle and deceptive craftiness that makes her a joy to watch. Of the three women playing female roles, I was particularly taken with Lindsay Partain (Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia); the gentle grief in her expressive face draws attention time and again to the human cost of men playing at war.

Coriolanus’ relevance to today’s world is facilitated by the absence of sets that would tie it to a particular time and place, as well as by costuming decisions that include a curiously effective mix of contemporary and ancient garb. The choice to dress Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia (MaryAnne Glazebrook) in clothes appropriate to a 1960s Junior Leaguer is especially evocative, summoning up the vision of a generation of American women thoughtlessly sending their sons off to Vietnam.

The addition of sporadic and ominous drumming ensures that the audience pays close heed to key moments in the show. Both the drums and the dialogue are pitched at a level appropriate to outdoor theater, sometimes a bit overwhelming for the opening weekend crowds, but balance should be restored when the show moves to Civic Center Plaza for the rest of the run.

Bag & Baggage’s production of Coriolanus runs through July 23, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Barring further rain, all performances will be held at the Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza, 150 E. Main St., Hillsboro.