Truth be told, Shakespeare’s script for the historical tragedy “Coriolanus” does not qualify among his best; in fact, the plodding text often makes for drab reading and perhaps explains why the play is infrequently staged. None of that stops director Darko Tresnjak from delivering a visually and emotionally rich production of the play at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, where it runs in repertory through September 25. What powers the intensely paced, action-packed spectacle is Greg Derelian’s kinetic performance as the title character.
Derelian is a veteran Shakespearean, having performed in such historical plays and tragedies as “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Henry V,” “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth,” and “Othello,” and comedies including “As You Like It” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” He does double duty at the Old Globe, playing Antonio in “Twelfth Night” as well.
In “Coriolanus,” Derelian portrays the Roman general of that name, who, at the play’s outset, defeats the Volscians and their leader, Tullus Aufidius. After his victory, Coriolanus expects to be anointed consul, but in order to attain that office, he must first earn the blessing of Rome’s plebeians, whom he disdains. Initially, the plebeians throw their support behind Coriolanus, but when the general is unable to hide his contempt for them, he suffers their wrath and is ultimately banished from Rome. Enraged, he turns against the city and joins forces with Aufidius, his former enemy, in order to attack it.
Treachery and treason serve as running themes in “Coriolanus,” which ultimately revolves around power – and the machinations of its pursuit. While the play decries its hero as arrogant and his handlers – the patricians – as scheming, it proves equally unforgiving of the fickle and easily manipulated plebeians.
Having trimmed extraneous dialogue from the script, Tresnjak directs with cinematic flair, intercutting and juxtaposing scenes, and arriving at a revisionist – but altogether inspired – closing tableau that capitalizes on Coriolanus’ complicated relationship with his mother Volumnia, who cuts a grand and imposing figure.
The production’s sole misstep is casting an all-too-young Celeste Ciulla in that maternal role and having Derelian act petulant around her. Fortunately, such moments are few, and Derelian’s performance is quite adult – highly physicalized and brutish, yet equally poignant and affecting.
“Coriolanus” marks Derelian’s debut at the Old Globe and will hopefully lead to an ongoing relationship between the actor and the theater, ensuring that the New York-based thespian will be a regular presence on a West Coast stage.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Velvet Revolution.”