Marathon finds new sense of urgency in one of Shakespeare's lesser classics

``Coriolanus,'' directed by Steven Berkoff, is the sixth entry in the New York Shakespeare Festival's ambitious Shakespeare Marathon series. It's also the best offering since ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' kicked off the project with a Brazilian setting and a funky Latin beat. In a number of departments, from the power of its poetry to the complexity of its characters, ``Coriolanus'' is not one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. Accordingly, it's not produced as often as many others. But a Shakespeare Marathon doesn't have the luxury of skipping second-rate achievements. What a marathon can do is find approaches that offer fresh insight, or at least fresh energy, to lesser works. Which is just what Mr. Berkoff has done, with help from a strong cast headed by Christopher Walken and Irene Worth.

Their rendition of ``Coriolanus'' is spare and stylized. About one-fourth of the text has been trimmed, and some characters have been combined into composite figures. More important, there's no attempt to give the play either a realistic or traditionally Shakespearean flavor. The costumes are as contemporary as they are eccentric, ranging from Coriolanus's leather coat to the charity-bin leftovers worn by Rome's plebeians. The acting is even more eclectic, counterpointing Shakespeare's familiar meters with an assertively postmodern rhythm of its own.

Eclecticism can be messy in Shakespeare. Here it's both lively and stimulating, however, thanks to the firm control exerted by director Berkoff on every element of the production. Everything fits, from the punchy shouts of the superbly choreographed chorus to the swaggering duckwalk that's the hero's most goofily appropriate trademark. And everything points up the themes of the play: the arrogance of power, exemplified by Coriolanus's self-importance as Rome's greatest military hero, and the fickleness of democracy, embodied by a populace that doesn't know its own mind.

To stress the stylization of this ``Coriolanus'' isn't to imply that it's particularly avant-garde. Some of its key ingredients hark back to the 1960s; there's a hint of the Living Theatre in its calculated gestures, and a touch of pioneers like Tom O'Horgan and Megan Terry in the occasional choral speaking. Berkoff's vision also calls to mind a couple of more recent productions: Its pessimistic view of human nature and the dynamics of power recalls Ingmar Bergman's brilliant ``Hamlet,'' which passed through New York not long ago; and its nonrealistic performances (punctuated by indelible stage tableaux) repeatedly reminded me of Moli`ere's great ``Don Juan'' as realized by Richard Foreman a few years back. Like both of those productions, ``Coriolanus'' preserves the essence of its classic text while giving it an urgency - and an irony - rooted deeply in our own time.

Credit goes not only to Berkoff but to his performers. Although his portrayal is as stylized as the rest of the production, Mr. Walken's conception of the title character is carefully thought out and psychologically sophisticated. Teaming with him for the first time since their superb work in ``Sweet Bird of Youth'' about 10 years ago, Ms. Worth plays the hero's mother with mingled strength and sincerity. Larry Bryggman and Andr'e Braugher are grimly hilarious as two Roman tribunes. The supporting ensemble is positively balletic as it dances through various citizen, senator, and officer roles. Everyone else is equally in tune with Berkoff's vision. And percussionist Larry Spivack, who wrote and performs the score, deserves a standing ovation.

``Coriolanus'' is at the Public Theater, where another stage is coincidentally occupied by a new Richard Foreman play. It's called ``What Did He See?'' and it's a thrilling exercise in Foreman's own brand of postmodernism, which has less to do with storytelling than with weaving themes and ideas around an enigmatic series of impressionistic interactions. The three-member cast is headed by Will Patton, who has a rare talent for investing surreal speeches and gestures with very real conviction and emotion. Mr. Foreman's zanily cluttered setting mutely suggests all that's best and worst in contemporary civilization. It's quite a show.

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