Bare Theatre @ Halifax Mall
406 N. Wilmington St., Raleigh
Through Oct. 4

Why is a political critique as sharp-toothed and astute as Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS such a stranger to local stages?

The last time we saw this work was in 2001, when Carmen-Maria Mandley launched Bare Theatre with a staged reading of it. Under current artistic director G. Todd Buker, the company returns to the text with a gifted, dedicated cast in a noteworthy full production.

This unsparing criticism of representative government comes before a hotly contested election in North Carolinaone in which the central foibles depicted in Shakespeare’s work are already on display.

And the setting of this site-specific work could hardly be more politically charged. As we walk the perimeter of Halifax Mall, the recent site of the Moral Monday marches, Buker deftly takes us across an historic panorama of social protest, urban conflict and political intrigue.

In an initial scene that eerily echoes the Occupy demonstrations, desperate citizens take to the streets. When a beloved politician, Menenius (a strong Fred Corlett), risks his life to address the mob, it falls to the title character to protect him.

Traversing this life-sized diorama, we witness the rising fortunes of Caius Marcius, who will be called Coriolanus after the city he conquers. Buker’s staging shows a battlefield from the vantage points of the victors and the defeated before segueing to the halls of power, where legislators Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus coolly assess the political impact of Coriolanus’ victory.

The latter characters will seem familiar to anyone who has braved the current crop of political ads. Noelle Barnard Azarelo’s sweet but stinging Sicinius and John Paul Middlesworth’s Junius are self-assured, camera-ready partisans who wouldn’t be out of place on Fox and Friends.

During this political tragedy, we develop a certain sympathy for their target. Though he’s a valiant and uncommonly successful warrior, Coriolanus is clearly doomed as a politician. Douglas Lally’s bravura performance shows us a man goaded into running for office by friends and a political stage mother, Volumnia (a fine Benji Jones).

With no social skills or fellow feeling for the masses, this Coriolanus is armed only with a personal code of honor that has little relevance in peacetime. If Al Gore had come up through the militaryand had 50 times the personal intensityhe would have looked a lot like this. By the time spin-meisters Junius and Sicinius are finished with him, the crowd is roaring for his skin.

At the dawn of the 1600s, Shakespeare already knew that “trickle-down” economics was a bustone of his characters here clearly articulates it. He also knew that the majority can be its own worst enemy when its emotions are manipulated by those in power. That great unlearned lesson confronts us, some 400 Octobers later, from every newspaper and TV screenand in the streets of this gripping production.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Protest too much.”