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Originally published Friday, January 13, 2012 at 12:45 PM

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Theater review

'Coriolanus': A Roman warrior, warts and all

Seattle Shakespeare Company's first stab at the work revives a lesser-known but fascinating tale of a tragic figure.

Seattle Times theater critic

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

'Coriolanus'

By William Shakespeare. Through Jan. 29, Seattle Shakespeare Company, Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$38 (206-733-8222 or www.seattleshakespeare.org).
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THEATER REVIEW |

There are Shakespeare plays that glorify war. And there are Shakespeare plays that castigate it. But there is no more jaundiced portrait of a warrior in the canon than in "Coriolanus."

In the title role of the new Seattle Shakespeare Company production, the tall, buff actor David Drummond portrays the legendary ancient Roman soldier as a growling, brutish hulk — a killing machine with a skinhead haircut.

From our first views of him, bloodstained and butchering, he seems a creature more bestial than human, and most at home when mowing down his foes.

Off the battlefield, Drummond's Caius Martius (whose valor against the rival Volscian army earns him the honorific "Coriolanus") crumples in the presence of his domineering, glory-seeking mother, Volumnia. And he's a politically tone-deaf pillar of sneering arrogance with the starving, rioting plebeian masses, and the treacherous Roman patricians aiming to exploit and destroy him.

Director David Quicksall's dramatically spotty but visually arresting and forceful mounting of the play rests solidly on the broad shoulders of Drummond's monstrous anti-hero. And in a very uneven first act, it's unclear if the actor's very impressive physicality alone will be enough to sustain the character — or if we'll wind up with a jaw-clenched Roman Rambo who's been in combat too long without a helmet.

It's fortunate, that as other elements of the production kick in, the choice to isolate and emotionally petrify Coriolanus seems less monochromatic.

Carol Wolfe Clay's semimodern set of vibrant, pan-epochal collage-style paintings and remnants of ancient architecture keeps revealing itself. Kent Cubbage's blood-splashed lighting and Nathan Wade's moody, percussive sound design help shape the drama.

The near-campy mommy-dearest dynamic is played to the max by Therese Diekhans, whose Volumnia is a whip-sharp manipulator with a sleek fashion sense.

The ricocheting schemes to turn Coriolanus into a popular hero, then a public enemy and finally an outcast, are clearly laid out — and resonate with the backroom machinations, image-creation and fickle swings of public opinion in our current presidential race.

But it is hard to tell, in this interpretation, that for all his hubris, Coriolanus has a sort of perverse integrity — more so than the patrician Romans trying to appease and control the restive plebes.

Those protesters (not surprisingly portrayed here as a kind of Occupy Rome contingent) also deserve more definition, as they attempt to test their power and sort out their rights in a fledgling republic.

More attention is paid to potentially the play's deepest relationship: the ironic bond of Coriolanus and his Volscian counterpart, Tullus Aufidius (the commanding, articulate Mike Dooly).

Many scholars spot a homoerotic undercurrent between these two arch "frenemies." That's expressed quietly here, in the gripping scene where a vagrant Coriolanus, ostracized by Rome, sets aside his pride and asks to join Aufidius' army.

With its strengths and limitations, this first Seattle Shakes take on a very tricky play can be viewed as a starter course. For further exploration, one can turn to the heralded new Ralph Fiennes film of "Coriolanus," tentatively set to open here in early February.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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