Unusual ‘Coriolanus’ actor delivers heroic performance

When James Newcomb first appears in the title role of "Coriolanus," he makes a startling impression. He’s playing a great warrior, yet he’s short, slight, and carries the posture of a pouting, pre-adolescent brat.

But there’s something beautifully "Mad Max"-morbid about his evil smirk. By the time the production is over, we believe not only that this man is an obsessive, mythologically gutsy soldier (with a mama’s boy-complex to boot) but a genuine human being as well.

Shakespeare’s seldom-seen tragedy is unusual in that instead of examining the one shortcoming that brings down an otherwise exemplary man, it looks at how good qualities can make for bad under certain circumstances.

When Coriolanus switches gears from the military to the political, he quickly plummets from demigod to villain. His honesty, his obsessiveness, which served him so well as a conqueror, doom him as a consul.

Shakespeare doesn’t seem to side with anyone. Both the commoners and the aristocrats seem unreasonable, as if to suggest this whole business of being human is impossible to do right.

There’s an undercurrent of comedy to the horrific events, most notably in the relationship between Coriolanus and his bloodthirsty mother Volumnia (the magnificently regal Leslie Brott). Brott’s a towering presence, and when she and Newcomb go at each other — at one point physically — you laugh, while at the same time wincing at how easily (and believably) a legendary killing machine can be brought to his knees by his mum.

Director Henry Woronicz infuses the action with a surprising amount of visual beauty. But problems abound.

We don’t buy that most of the well-scrubbed actors are soldiers. They seem to grunt and cheer only because the director told them to. Comic bits too often stick out as comic bits. The fight sequences suffer from actors who seem more concerned with hitting their marks than doing battle. And Coriolanus’ arch rival, Tullus Aufidius (Michael Sharon), comes off like a laid-back, adulation-seeking ’70s rock star. With shoulder-length hair magnificently permed, shirts that skillfully expose his chest, and poses that are appropriate for love not war, Sharon’s cartoon portrayal dilutes one of the central conflicts.

But Newcomb is reason to forgive all. This bewitchingly unusual actor enriches the story’s psychology with the sort of contradictions that suggest real life. It’s a heroic performance.

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