The Shakespeare Theatre Company is trying out an idea that was common on Shakespeare’s stage: performing plays together in repertory. STC is calling this pairing the Hero/Traitor rep, referring to the main conflict of both plays. A single group of actors is putting on both Coriolanus and Wallenstein, alternating plays on different nights.
Coriolanus focuses on the successful Roman general Caius Martius, later known as Coriolanus (played by Patrick Page). The play follows his rise up to the height of power in Rome and his fall down to a traitor, fighting for the other side. Even as he abandons his country, he remains loyal to his own flawed ideals. There are two conflicts in the play: the conflict between Rome and a neighboring state as well as an internal clash between the commoners and the elites (the Plebeians and the Patricians). Coriolanus thinks of the Plebeians merely as votes, or “voices,” and for that they revile him.
Wallenstein also centers around one man, a charismatic general of the Thirty Years’ War. Wallenstein as played by Steve Pickering is a funny character. Unlike Coriolanus, Wallenstein appeals to the other characters’ (and to the audience’s) senses of humor and uses this fact to gain their trust. Most of all, Wallenstein seeks public recognition and fame. In this he is like Achilles, the Greek hero who chooses everlasting fame over a long and healthy life.
Wallenstein was originally written in German by Friedrich Schiller and translated (or rather “freely adapted”) for STC by the poet Robert Pinsky. His text feels modern and fresh. Each line flows smoothly into the next, incorporating curses and dialogue as well as rhyme. Something about the whole production felt new. Maybe that was because this play is performed so rarely, but I think it was more that I was unfamiliar with the style. When I see Shakespeare performed, I frequently recognize standard plot devices (separated twins, ship wrecks, girl dressing up as a boy) and the lines (even if I’ve never seen the play), but in Wallenstein I recognized nothing!
Wallenstein’s ghost narrates much of the play from the lowest plain of Hell. (Interestingly enough, Robert Pinsky also translated Dante’s Inferno with its extensive dialogue in Hell.) From Hell, Wallenstein compares the events in the play to America’s current politics. He cracks jokes and tells the story of his exploits from his own point of view.
When I walked into Sidney Harman Hall to see Coriolanus, I was immediately struck by the overwhelming grandness of the set (designed by Blythe R.D. Quinlan). It looked like concrete and had an almost postmodern feel to it. At various points in the play, the set moved automatically--rotating, sliding, and shifting silently to make way for the actors. Even though the transitions were smooth, the movement distracted me, and I found myself wishing for a simpler set. However, all the more portable set pieces are brought in by the working class characters, the plebs. They bring in chairs, the staircases, and carpets, all while continuing the dialogue of the play. This helped bring the world of the stage and the world of the play closer together.
The lighting and drums were of such intensity that I felt immersed in the emotion of the battles and the fear of the soldiers, as if I too were trapped on the stage. While this greatly helped me understand Coriolanus’s character (understanding the bravery it must take to charge into battle and how crazy he must be to enjoy it), the humor that followed always felt strained. Could that have been the intended reaction? Maybe David Muse (the director of Coriolanus) intended the production to show the effects of war on everyday life and to all those near the combat (like Coriolanus’s haunting son).
Because these plays are performed in repertory, both productions use the same stage. But in Wallenstein, the way the set moves does not seem to connect the themes of the play. There is no clear explanation for the arrival of set pieces: they either rise from the floor or appear in the darkness. I found this style less effective in communicating the theme of the play than was the style used in Coriolanus. Nevertheless, some of the set pieces in Wallenstein were themselves interesting to look at. My favorite was a giant steampunk astrological clock with planets and stars all rotating on bronze gears.
Coriolanus leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The details of the action and plot and even costume changes each might contain a message, yet they often felt like accidents, not at all like hidden symbolism. Wallenstein himself talks very directly about the search for recognition and greatness and how that search leads the hero’s downfall. Neither performance’s style felt fully satisfactory to me. Coriolanus felt vague and too open-ended. I was left feeling unsure of the intended interpretation of the hero-traitor theme. Wallenstein, on the other hand, sometimes seemed to present its moral on a platter. It required far less thinking from the audience.
In short, I found both productions interesting but ultimately unsatisfying. When put together, however, they yielded a whole much greater than the parts. The two plays addressed the theme of the hero-traitor in different ways. By seeing both plays, an audience member gets a fascinating opportunity for comparison.