The Hero/Traitor Repertory

A Shakespeare Theatre Double-Take

Patrick Page as Coriolanus and the cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Coriolanus, directed by David Muse. Photo: Scott Suchman

The Shakespeare Theatre Company offers a rare treat this month at Sidney Harman Hall, where shared themes, sets and actors occupy a single stage in alternating productions of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein. The “Hero/Traitor Repertory” realizes Artistic Director Michael Kahn’s vision of simultaneously exploring two classical works, revealing the complex connections and stark differences between not only the plays but also the creative insights and impulses of their directors. While each of the two productions is a satisfying experience, together they are even more provocative and stimulating.

Both plays grapple with the delicate and dangerous dance between military prowess and political power, tracing the rise and fall of charismatic leaders who perform unparalleled feats on the battlefield but crash and burn when they fail to translate that success to the civic arena. They simply cannot navigate fickle political allegiances and the whims of the general public. 

But in dramatizing each hero’s tragic fall, Shakespeare and Schiller part ways. Coriolanus, the story of a Roman war hero, is driven by its protagonist’s intense passion and a fundamental inability to kowtow to the plebeians, whose approval is essential to his rise to the office of consul—and whose rejection leads to his doom. 

Patrick Page takes on the role with extraordinary gusto, in a voice so resonant and commanding that all others sound muted in its wake. His Coriolanus rides an emotional roller coaster that takes him from fearlessness in battle to fury as he rages against political expediency and convention, mixed with profound grief and frustration at his inability to obey and please his mother, the doting and domineering Volumnia (Diane D’Aquila).  

The play’s dramatic tension is built on a simple question: What will Coriolanus do? Can he follow the advice of Menenius Agrippa, played by the sage and calming Robert Sicular, who struggles to guide and elevate his younger friend? Will he accede to his mother, whose swordplay and brief exchanges with Coriolanus’ young son leave no doubt that she’s been exacting strict discipline and obedience since he was a child himself? Or will he give in to his brittle resentment of Junius Brutus (Philip Goodwin) and Sicinius Velutus (Derrick Lee Weeden), tribunes of the people who gall him with their demands of false humility?

These mentors and nemeses hold their own amid Page’s explosive performance—especially D’Aquila as a mother who is fully prepared to reject her son if he crosses her. Goodwin stands out too as a small man relishing a taste of power: Unable to be a great man himself, at least he can bring a great man down.

Schiller’s Wallenstein—particularly as translated and freely adapted by former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky—is far less a study of its heroic figure and more a study of his time: the brutal and pointless 30 Years’ War at its midpoint in 1634. In fact, rather than engaging in intensely emotional relationships and struggles, Wallenstein frequently steps outside the play altogether, assuming the persona of a thoroughly detached “Dead Wallenstein” who offers wry and often 21st century commentary on the plot. 

Played with incisive clarity by Steve Pickering, Wallenstein may be just as frustrated as Coriolanus, but his downfall results not from failing to play the game but rather being trapped in a game that has no fixed rules. In this he is not alone. His oldest friend Octavio (Robert Sicular), Octavio’s son Max (Nick Dillenburg), and Bailey, one of his generals (Chris Hietikko) also struggle to define and join the “right” side in a multifaceted conflict.   

Layered on these distinctions between the plays is each director’s vision and choice of theatrical devices—even when using the same creative team and actors to execute them. David Muse—The Studio Theatre’s artistic director and a former Shakespeare Theatre Company associate artistic director—aims for a Coriolanus confined to no particular time or place, or what he calls a “swords and suits” production, with mixed results. 

Murell Horton’s costumes, while timelessly designed to signify class and position, have a disconcerting uniformity. The matching dresses for the women, casual grey suits for the tribunes, floor-length robes for the senators, and oddly wrapped blouses for the soldiers are stylized in a way that almost recalls Star Trek, inadvertently making a statement about an imaginary time period instead of alluding to no particular time at all.

Muse also asked Blythe R.D. Quinlan to design a set that, he says, “can make this big stage feel crowded.” But the tight circle of nondescript stone facades can leave the impression that what is supposed to be a horde of plebeians rioting in a city square is just a handful of disgruntled citizens conspiring in a bunker. Other creative flourishes, like having plebeians move around the stage playing drums and other musical instruments, can be more distracting than illuminating. Ultimately, it’s the fine acting under Muse’s direction that carries the show.   

By contrast, Wallenstein director Michael Kahn sets his play firmly in its 17th century context, with actors in period costumes—also designed by Horton—that denote each character’s wealth, power and position. And Quinlan’s set works better here, with lighting and furnishings that define interior spaces, from the halls of power to a lady’s bedroom, and only hint at an expanse of battlefields and highways offstage. 

Kahn also beautifully underscores the universal suffering inflicted by the war. At key junctures his ghostly cast stands in rows across the stage, gently swaying back and forth as they listen to the grim narrative, as if batted about by relentless murder, torture and pillage. In one scene a child of this doomed society, portrayed by Colin Carmody, sings a haunting song of longing for the life-giving beauty and warmth of spring.

While considering these differences between the productions, it’s also great fun to reflect on the actors’ performances in dual roles. In both plays, Sicular is the assured voice of reason and experience who is still ignored by heroes with minds of their own. D’Aquila as Volumnia and then Countess Szerny, Wallenstein’s sister, shines as the powerful woman behind the man, who can’t quite pull his strings. And Philip Goodwin, whether as the tribune representing plebeians in Coriolanus or as Questenberg representing the emperor in Wallenstein, is the ultimate weak man who patiently bears the scorn of heroes—knowing that he will prevail in the end. 

It’s also a joy to watch Max Reinhardsen, a lowly member of the Coriolanus ensemble with barely a spoken line, whose comic flair almost steals the show in a brief scene when a group of servants scramble to set dinner. One of the great pleasures of following Washington theatre is noticing how well an actor handles a small role—and looking forward to seeing him turn up again in other shows. 

Washington is fortunate to have this synergy of creative and intellectual power focused on two such substantial plays. The combination of Coriolanus and Wallenstein is truly greater than the sum of its parts.   

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.