Saturday, April 2, 2016

"Coriolanus" by New Epic Theater at the Lab Theater

Last weekend New Epic Theater opened a strikingly beautiful and devastating production of the 1985 Off-Broadway play The Normal Heart about the early days of the AIDS crisis. This weekend they open part two of their ambitious spring repertory production, Shakespeare's Coriolanus. The two plays share the same terrific eight-person cast, innovative and distinctive director Joseph Stodola,* performance space (the gorgeous and spacious Lab Theater), set, and overall look. Separated in time by about 400 years, The Normal Heart and Coriolanus are in some ways similar and in other ways very different. Both continue the trajectory that this new company has set right out of the gate with visually and emotionally impactful work (see also Doubt and One Arm). After this second opening weekend, the two plays will be performed in rep for the next two weekends, culminating in both shows being performed back-to-back (with a dinner break) on Saturday April 16 (ticket information and performance schedule here). Friends, New Epic Theater is an exciting new addition to our bountiful theater community and I urge you to see one or both of these plays to experience their unique vision.

Since I often have a hard time with Shakespeare, especially the first time I see a play, I did myself a favor and read the plot summary of Coriolanus before the show. Helpful for me, but I'm not sure it's necessary. New Epic has trimmed the play, cutting out several characters, condensing the story to a succinct, fast-moving, action-packed two hours (including intermission). Coriolanus (also called Marcius) is a successful Roman General who decides, with his mother's encouragement, to turn his success on the battlefield into a position in the government. But the people do not love him due to his callous attitude towards them, mocking them whilst asking them for their votes, telling them what they want to hear to win the election (sound familiar?). He is banished from Rome (don't you wish we could banish certain callous mocking politicians from the country?), joins up with the enemy against Rome, and is only convinced to back down when his beloved mother pleads for mercy for Rome (because after all, a boy's best friend is his mother). But this is a Shakespeare tragedy; things don't end well for Coriolanus, or his mother, or the people of Rome.

At first glance, these two plays don't seem very similar; The Normal Heart about a man fighting for justice from a government that doesn't seem to care, Coriolanus about a man in the government who just loves to fight. But in a way, they're flip sides of the same story. In The Normal Heart, Ned Weeks uses his angry voice to try to convince the government to do something about the rapidly worsening AIDS epidemic in 1982 NYC, and is continually frustrated when his efforts don't seem to work. In Coriolanus, we see the other side of that story. There are a few brief scenes of the citizens asking the government for grain at a fair price, but the story is mostly told from the government's side, i.e., Coriolanus. Where Ned's fight, despite his antagonistic methods, is understandable and admirable, Coriolanus' disregard for the people and his singular love of fighting makes for a mostly unsympathetic character. Which brings us to the difference between these two political plays. The Normal Heart is about love, community, and the attempts, however misguided, to bring people together, while Coriolanus is about war, destruction, and ripping people apart.

Zach Curtis, Michelle O'Neill, and Torsten Johnson
(photo by Patrick Kennedy)
I don't think the word frenemy existed in Shakespeare's time, but there is no better word to describe the relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius, who respect each other as worthy foes while trying to kill each other, then happily fight on the same side, until reluctantly torn apart again. I guess one could say Bruce and Ned are frenemies too, but Torsten Johnson and Michael Wieser, who both give powerful and physical performances, take it to a whole new level as Coriolanus and Aufidius. Their second act meeting is something raw, primal, and dangerous, sniffing around each other like dogs, trying to decide if each other is friend or foe.

Coriolanus (Torsten Johnson) and Aufidius (Michael Wieser)
ready for a fight (photo by Patrick Kennedy)
Zach Curtis plays Coriolanus' supporter Menenius, borrowing Dr. Brookner's wheelchair, an interesting but not particularly noteworthy choice, until it turns a second act scene into one almost too painful to watch. Michelle O'Neill is in her element here, elevating everyone around her and giving a riveting performance as a mother who loves in the way only a Shakespearean mother (or Norma Bates) can love. Rejoicing in her son's every battle scar in the first act, turning to madness and desperation in the second act, bringing the audience along through every emotion. The scenes between mother and son are some of the most affecting. Also giving strong performances are Adam Qualls and Grant Sorenson as Roman officials plotting against Coriolanus, and Antonio Duke and JuCoby Johnson as Coriolanus' supporters.

Both plays use movement, sound, and aesthetics to tell the story, in different but related ways. The two plays share the black and gray modern look of the costumes and the set, which primarily consists of three metal desks on either side, with actors assigned to the same desks, and a raised stage at the back. Ned's living room couch has been replaced with a chalk circle drawn on the floor like a wrestling ring, and a metal ladder and rappelling gear has been added. While the soundtrack of The Normal Heart is Queen, the soundtrack of Coriolanus is primal percussion performed by the cast on the desks. The Normal Heart opens with a dance of love, while Coriolanus includes several fight scenes that are themselves beautiful well-choreographed (by James Kunz) dances. This young cast shows off their athletic grace, particularly Torsten as Coriolanus and Michael as Aufidius. Finally, both shows utilize blood, a lot of blood.

Both The Normal Heart and Coriolanus continue in rep at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis' trendy North Loop neighborhood through April 16 (ticket information and performance schedule here). Go see the most ambitious work yet from this exciting new company.

*My colleague Kendra Plant interviewed Joseph Stodola about his work and vision, you can read it at the Artfully Engaging blog here.

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.