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STAGE REVIEW : Updated Shakespeare Falls Flat : 'Coriolanus' set in modern-day L.A. is hurt by a disastrous attempt at gender-bending.


The Actors Company, which created the lifelike "Town Meeting" by engaging the audience in what appeared to be a heated city coun cil meeting, is staging another play about the schism between personal power and representative government--Shakespeare's pointed political drama "Coriolanus," at the Burbank Little Theatre.

But we are not in the world of ancient Rome. The Roman Empire, lo these many centuries, has not fallen at all and the action of the play now unfolds in the province of Roma de Los Angeles circa 1993.

That, of course, translates into riot-torn L.A., dramatized in this case with familiar riot video footage on a huge interactive TV screen. The production is the brainchild of director Michael Eugene Fairman, who created "Town Meeting" complete with guest appearances by real California politicians. Fairman has a predilection for environmental theater with social clout.

"Coriolanus," which in recent years has been modernized as a Third World Marxist play and elsewhere as a modern-dress Fascist drama, beautifully lends itself to such updating. Its story of a warrior defeated by the excesses of hubris is timeless.

So it's bitterly disappointing that the Actors Company, in trying to make the tragedy relevant, has ruined it altogether.

This is particularly painful because of the ambitious production values, with characters interacting with live faces and voices on the TV screen, and the sheer intimidating density of the long speeches that are largely unchanged. ("Coriolanus" is not among Shakespeare's more popular plays--and for good reason. This version is an unendurable three hours long).

The core of the show's problem is Fairman's gender-bending. It may appear fashionable in our culturally diverse society to cast roles with the best actor, male or female, but here it's a disaster.

Fairman has overloaded the masculine roles with female actors (seven women and four men). Coriolanus is now also a woman (Mary Eileen O'Donnell), who admittedly looks and acts quite mannish. This might have worked if the play wasn't so anchored to a warrior son's unhealthy relationship with his mother.

Underneath the politics and the clashes between classes, Shakespeare's Coriolanus is the creation of his extraordinary mother, Volumnia. His psychological dependence on her leads to his moral failings and his downfall. But on the Burbank stage, Volumnia has become a father (George Roland) and Coriolanus his daughter. You can't flip-flop genders like this and be true to Freud or the play. The result, without being a purist about Shakespeare, is sexual and maternal confusion. A mess, in short.

Coriolanus' wife in the original text (Virgilia) has been cut from the production entirely--no big loss, but a gesture that again distances you from the source.

At the same time, the Bard's words, not so coincidentally, fail except on the most general level to reflect our passage through L.A., sharp graffiti-scarred walls and paramilitary garb notwithstanding. The Los Angeles riots remain a byproduct at best.

Where and When What: "Coriolanus" Where: The Actors Company, Burbank Little Theatre, George Izay Park, 1111 W. Olive Ave., Burbank. When: Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Ends March 7. Price: $6-$12. Call: (818) 954-9858.

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