SAN DIEGO—The stereotype of a 'Jewish Mother' is that she is manipulative controlling, smothering or overbearing. Of course we must not leave love out of this equation. Such a mother is said to be unrelenting in her interference in her children's lives from childhood to adulthood.
Although she was a Roman, and not a Jew, such was the case also of the character Volumnia (Celeste Ciulla, a powerhouse), the mother of Caius Martius (Greg Derelian), also known as Coriolanus’ mother in Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name currently playing in repertory on the Lowell Davies Festival Stage in the Old Globe Complex.
Coriolanus is definitely the tragic figure of heroic proportions spurred on by his ever-domineering mother, his own stupidity and lust for battle.
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s final tragedies and has never been considered one of his greatest plays nor is it one of his more popular. Its hero, or anti-hero Coriolanus is the consummate fighter and killing machine, lacking compassion for the common man and having no savvy in matters of politics. In fact he is leery of popular rule and needs Menenius (Charles Janasz) to guide him through any political machinations. He is stubborn to a fault and is completely responsible for his own downfall, his overbearing mother not withstanding. Seems a son only a mother could love.
Resident artistic director Darko Tresnjak, who directs, moves the play from ancient Rome to what looks like pre WWII maybe Rome or Russia in the 1930’s according to Anna R. Oliver’s costumes, especially the women’s hairdo’s and Mom’s long fur coat. Her military uniforms for the men are regulation khaki shirts and leggings, black storm boots for the fighting men, classy dress suits and fedoras for the civilian aristocracy and drab work clothes for the plebeians. Eight or nine red flags with black eagles are seen slapping in the background (good night for the breeze. Dress warm.) on Ralph Funicello’s sturdy set. That and the several red whirling, flashing sirens (York Kennedy) add to the notion of possibly a Fascist Italy background.
The story, based on the real life tragedy of the Roman General of the same name, was written about 1608. The play opens in the aftermath of a famine and the plebeians are demanding to set their own price for the cost of the city’s wheat supply. They revolt claiming that the Patricians and the Senate want too high a price for it. Since the commoners know the scorn Martius has for them, they blame him for the high prices of the grain. They rise up and promise to go on strike and unionize if something isn’t done.
When the ruling aristocracy finally grants their requests for representatives or tribunes of the people, Sicinius and Brutus (Grant Goodman and James Newcomb) support their side, angering Caius Martius who frankly can’t understand their grievances.Sicinius and Brutus
evolved during the rise and fall of Coriolanus from newspaper boys ringing out his victory to back- stabbing political henchmen to bureaucrats turning in the wind of the political climate. Caius is not unlike some politicians of today who can’t understand why universal healthcare is so important.
In the middle of this big debate, war breaks out with a neighboring tribe from Italy, the Volscians. It is led by Coriolanus’ rival general Tillus Aufidlus (Brandon Griffin). Making a long (2 ½ hours long) story short, the forces of Martius, who is now christened Coriolanus, defeat the Volscians. When the now-hero returns home the victor, the
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Senate wants to make him consul but the thought of being a political animal, kissing babies and catering to the people he can’t stand doesn’t sit right with him.
When Menenius asks him to speak to the people, he responds: “I do beseech you, Let me o’leap that custom: for I cannot put on the gown, stand naked, and entreat them….. Please you that I may pass this doing.” (Act II Scene II) He finds himself torn between two worlds— one of being a fighter and commander, the other a politician. With the fighting over for the time being, he’s in a n- win position.
After he finally tries the patience of both politicians and the people, they all decide to exile him. More angry than ever, he promises to take up with his archenemy, Tillus Aufidius who embraces him with open arms. When his family back home is threatened by their own people, his mother and wife Virgilia (Brooke Novak) go to him and plead, in front of Aufidius, to give up the notion of joining his rival-now-turned comrade in slaughtering his own people. Being the mama’s boy that he is, and with the influence she has over him, he gives up his plan to do battle and decides to make peace between the warring factions. But, no, they do not live happily ever after much to the horror of Volumnia.
Both Derelian, who plays Antonio Sebastian’s ‘friend’ in Twelfth Night and Celeste Ciulla, who is in Cyrano, make up with some heavy duty and spot on acting for what the play itself lacks. He’s a brute of a guy, muscle bound and most of the time either dripping in blood or smeared in blood. He is after all a killing machine. But aside from that, he is pretty powerful and a force to be reckoned with. At no time did I ever doubt where he stood on the issues of war with the exception of his recoiling from his mother’s last wish, toward the end, that he return to Rome. And Ciulla is simply outstanding as the all-powerful, dressed to the nines in a flowing full-length sable mink over a bright red dress, and nerves of steel mother out to make sure that her son stays the warrior she brought him up to be, flaws and all.
Bruce Turk is understated as the loyal friend and patrician whose reputation and wit seem to elude Coriolanus. Both Grant Goodman and James Newcomb, playing Coriolanus for the fool, excel in their undertaking. A couple of disappointments come in Brandon Griffin as Tillus Aufidus and Brooke Novak as Virgilia. Griffin’s great general and top Coriolanus’ archenemy looked or acted like anything but his character.
That he might have been unnerved because he could never defeat Coriolanus or that someone else might have been a stronger presence is unclear. His boy-like washed out appearance just never convinced me that he was general material.
Novak’s character is weak to begin with having to live under a domineering mother in law, so watching her cower every time she was in their presence, was too much to take especially since she just went with the flow anyway. Tresnjak has a doll like puppet portray Coriolanus’ son. It’s a pretty different take. Maybe he was safer as a dummy to be out of the reach of his power-hungry grandmother and killer instinct father.
One of the most outstanding and lasting impressions that the play left is at the end when Coriolanus returns home only to be slashed and smothered in front of his own cheering people and his horrified mother. The action freezes and the spot light slowly narrows in on Volumnia’s horrified face and then fades.
I’ll give a two-star rating because e of Derelian and Ciulla. Check out www.oldglobe.org for times and dates. See you at the theatre.