Coriolanus (Saxon Palmer) needs a spin doctor in the worst way. The play begins by following the young general's latest victory over the aggressive Volsces (led by Chris Kayser). In gratitude, the Roman Senate names him consul, the city-state's highest rank, and to seal the deal, all he has to do is recount his exploits and show his wounds in public.
But Coriolanus dislikes bragging and making a spectacle of himself. Sicinia and Brutus (Carolyn Cook and Rob Cleveland), a pair of scheming tribunes duly elected by Rome's common folk, incite the sooty, uncouth masses against him. Accused of treason and banished from Rome, Coriolanus reacts with such fury that he joins forces with the Volsces and leads an army against his former home.
Palmer gives Coriolanus wrath worthy of Achilles, but since the general really is an elitist, contemptuous of the lower classes and incapable of self-restraint, his failures seem less than truly tragic. Coriolanus turns out to be the rare Shakespeare production in which the writer doesn't measure up to the performers. Cleveland and especially Cook convincingly play political schemers, wrapping their self-interest in the public good, but their characters prove to be mere shadows of Julius Caesar's conspirators.
Director John Dillon oversees a highly cinematic show with bustling crowd scenes and designs that vividly evoke both 20th-century Fascism and Communism. Cook and Cleveland don black armbands and Mao jackets, while the Volsces wear modified SS uniforms and raise their arms in Hitler salutes. The Roman mob's song "The People Are the City" even sounds like the Socialist anthem "L'Internationale." Though the production evokes specific periods, the play's harsh judgment of politicians and the electorate alike proves surprisingly fresh. Coriolanus confirms the adage that the people get the leaders they deserve.
-- CURT HOLMAN
Coriolanus plays in repertory through Aug. 8 at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, Conant Performing Arts Center, Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 8 p.m. $10-$35. Call 404-264-0020. www.gashakespeare.org.
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