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A couple of years ago, the satirical Web site The Onion, ran the headline and accompanying farcical story "Cheney Threatens to Invade U.S.," after a bout of the vice-president's saber rattling. It was a funny insight, but Shakespeare beat the faux news source to the idea by about 400 years. The analogy doesn't go much further, however, because Shakespeare's Coriolanus is a war hero, and he actually does invade his homeland. It's an absurdly arrogant choice, but one that gets right at the questions of what tempers a leader's power and authority.

The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane has a sort of summer blockbuster in the tragedy Coriolanus, given its first half of fast-paced war and conquest and second half of intrigue and betrayal. It continues a season of plays exploring themes of character and leadership.

Coriolanus is set in ancient Rome and is about a legendary Roman war hero of the same name. There is unrest in the capital as a famine has the masses up in arms. Bands of men are grabbing pitchforks and pipes and preparing to storm the capitol. To placate them, the government offers to include new tribunes in the senate to represent them, but before anything is resolved, the neighboring Volscians invade. The plebeians would rather be hungry than enslaved to foreign masters and quickly call for protection. Caius Martius (Antony Sandoval) steps up to lead the Roman legions. So fearless is the already decorated and heavily scarred war hero that he charges into battle even though the commoners-turned-foot-soldiers retreat in fear. He rallies his forces to take the city of Corioli. Then he pursues Volscian Gen. Tullus Aufidius (Lorenzo Gonzalez) and engages in what looks like a contemporary mixed martial arts tussle before Aufidius is rescued by his troops.

In honor of his extreme heroics, Martius is renamed Coriolanus. He rejects the spoils of war as if accepting reward would impugn his motives and glory. His mother Volumnia, who shares an extremely high view of him, exhorts him to become the Consul of Rome. The masses, however, hold lingering resentments and fear installing him as an autocratic ruler. Rather than offering a gesture of conciliation, Coriolanus seethes at the very idea of needing their consent. To him the masses are cowardly and unworthy of distinguishing between fear, hunger and the good of the state.

Various intermediaries try to seek a balance between his assets as a courageous and fearless leader and the democratic necessities of a republic, like the support of the citizens. Other generals and Volumnia push Coriolanus to assuage the fears of the tribunes and the masses. But like a warrior, he would prefer to force them to back down.

The minimalist set at the Lupin Theater consists of a small Roman forum set off by a handful of columns and the fluid space of the theater in the round. Though the dialogue sticks to the Roman setting, the costumes seem more out of Europe between the World Wars. Coriolanus and the generals wear the stiff black boots and black leather that came to be associated with fascism. Coriolanus' wife and Volumnia look like British ladies in long gloves. The cast of plebeians and soldiers are suited to quick costume changes for the rapid change of identity and scenes in the first half. Ron Gural's direction swirls the action around the stage and aisles, almost drawing the audience into some of the civil unrest.

Strong performances are turned in by Rebecca Frank as Volumnia, who brilliantly handles a climactic confrontation with Coriolanus, and Lorenzo Gonzalez as Volscian general Aufidius, who is a level-headed and wise counterpoint to Coriolanus. As the tribunes, Randy Maggiorre and Jerry Lee Leighton make for an interesting couple of sash-draped bureaucrats who get caught shuttling back and forth from the Senate to the people, standing up to each side and trying to negotiate between the whims of each.

Coriolanus is a difficult hero. There is less in his plight to sympathize with than with tragic figures like Hamlet or Macbeth. In the lead, Sandoval does a very convincing job of making him supremely arrogant. He exudes disdain with a jutting chin, frequent sneer and hissing voice. It's unmistakable that he neither respects nor fears anyone he encounters. Perhaps what he also needs is to project a physically intimidating presence that would compel the rest of the cast to cower as he thunders about. The masses fear him and his mother acquiesces, but the other generals and senators should wince at his fiery presence.

Coriolanus ultimately accepts banishment instead of compromise and immediately seeks to lead the Volscians against Rome. In marching on his own blood and home, however, he must face the difference between leading and seeking power for its own sake.

click to enlarge Coriolanus (Antony Sandoval) returns to Rome as a - conquering hero.
  • Coriolanus (Antony Sandoval) returns to Rome as a conquering hero.
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