Caius Marcius Coriolanus (Dan Day) is an historical figure, a nobleman from the early days of the Roman Empire. A warrior who rose to glory in battle, Coriolanus was obstinately unwilling to bend to political custom and eventually was banished from Rome. His story was recorded by the Greek biographer Plutarch, translated much later into French by Jacques Amyot, and rendered in English 100 years after that by Victor North; from this literary pipeline, Shakespeare received the story and created his Coriolanus, classical in tone but very Elizabethan in structure.
The action of the play follows Coriolanus through several phases of his career, beginning as an arrogant young warrior who achieves notoriety in a modest battle against the city of Corioli. His victory boosts his candidacy for consul but, when he refuses to show his battle wounds or flatter his fellow citizens, Coriolanus is cast out of Rome and joins forces with his former enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Christopher Carlos). Central to the plot is the influence of Coriolanus' mother, Volumnia (Trae Hicks), who, upon her son's return to the gates of Rome, dissuades him from teaming with Aufidius in an attack on the city.
Emulating Elizabethan casting, New York-based director Matthew Earnest (artistic director of the Deep Ellum Ensemble) has assembled nine able-bodied actors--they might have been plucked from the same softball team--who each play multiple male and female roles. Bare-chested in frayed-hem muslin skirts, jogging around what looks like a muddy sandbox, the performers suit up (or more accurately, strip down) for what turns out to be a rather gripping saga.
Earnest displays a sure hand in directing this exuberant cast, and he receives major support from set and lighting designer Deborah Reitman: The multi-level playing area and dramatic, steeply angled lighting provide smooth and clear transitions of setting and mood. Reitman allows the actors to strut in and out of light and shadow while giving the entire production a warm yet urgent glow. However, costume designer Patrick Johnson's abbreviated variations on the Roman toga--ultimately just underwear and skirts--aren't particularly flattering to the players.
While the actors may not be sleekly Romanesque, they are uniformly strong storytellers; having rehearsed the play for eight weeks, they have created a homogeneous ensemble. Their beefy, baritone voices deftly deliver Joseph Troski's moody original songs as brief but welcome breaks in the prose. Narrative sections spoken in unison are impressively precise in terms of meter and shared inflections, though some high-volume, quickly spoken solo lines are lost due to a pesky echo in the high-ceilinged Heldt/Hall theater. Portions of the play, especially in the beginning, are shouted while the performers run in circles and are therefore rather hard to follow.
Carlos and fellow Dallas-based actor Mark Farr, who plays Sicinius (a scheming Roman tribune) both demonstrate a high comfort level with Shakespeare's poetic prose and its complex psychological underpinnings. They wisely blend in quieter moments and curb excessive braying. Carlos' vocal dexterity brings a particularly commanding presence to a demanding role. (In past KDT productions, he has been excellent in such diverse assignments as Nick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the title role in Othello.)
Oddly, the abundance of skin on display doesn't add a homoerotic charge to the proceedings. While Earnest's cleverly choreographed male chorus forms striking stage pictures, the production maintains a bland, unisex tastefulness. Also, the chest-baring attire is disconcerting on the actors assigned to the female characters; the addition of a necklace here or a shawl there is our only visual clue that a player is no longer just one of the boys in the band. It is fortunate, though, that the men's voices don't modulate into falsetto when they are playing women; the ladies' longer diatribes would not doubt have become grating on the ear if delivered in that fashion.
While Dan Day has successfully played Shakespearean leads before, this title role initially seems as ill-suited to him as his costume: He conjures a young, defiant Jimmy Stewart, whereas the role calls for a more brooding, Richard Burton-type. By the second act, however, Day finds the hook that allows the very flawed Coriolanus to sing with chilling conviction.