HomeEntertainmentWhat if ‘Coriolanus’ were a video game?

What if ‘Coriolanus’ were a video game?

The Roman soldier obeys curt commands. When a disembodied voice raps out, “Crouch!,” the soldier crouches. When the voice barks, “Attack!,” the soldier lunges with a sword. “Block!” “Jump!” He follows the directives, which appear to be controlled by white-coated techies at a nearby gaming console.

Could this be a beta-test outtake for an installment of Assassin’s Creed? No, it’s our introduction to the protagonist of a new “Coriolanus,” and an ingenious concept.

Director Séamus Miller’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy imagines its title character, channeled by James Finley, as a figure in an action-adventure video game. It’s a concept that helps the play explore the idea that society programs us to respect violence and out-of-control egos.

Co-produced by Avant Bard Theatre, focused on classics, and the idiosyncratic theater troupe Longacre Lea, which has experimented with multimedia, this “Coriolanus” admittedly features a banal metatheatrical coda. And although Finley’s athleticism and plumb line posture are spot-on for a game character, his verse delivery is uneven; he tends to rush through the words and blur the meter. Still, with Miller’s bold video design (flames, lines of code), Alexa Cassandra Duimstra’s antiquity-meets-Activision costumes, and sound designer and composer Tom Carman’s pixel-evoking jingles and effects, the production is accessible and tangy.

Crucially, the video game conceit suits the play — not only the fight-heavy storyline, with its sense of continually rebooting military and political clashes, but also Coriolanus’s relative deficit of interiority (especially compared with protagonists of other Shakespeare tragedies).

A hotshot warrior — elite and elitist — Coriolanus triumphs in Rome’s battles against the Volscians. But his withering contempt for the common people, and for political glad-handing, wins him enemies at home, leading him to ally with the Volscians and threaten Rome.

As the Volscian general Aufidius, Saron Araia displays compelling gravitas, and she delivers Shakespeare’s language in supple, ringing tones. When Aufidius interacts with Coriolanus — including in a scene that shows off Bess Kaye’s aptly slashing, grappling fight choreography — there’s a piquant frenemy vibe.

In the show’s best performance, Eric Hissom infuses Coriolanus’s friend Menenius with exasperation and weary humor. Kimberly Gilbert brings verve to Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother, whose gloating over her son’s combat wounds underscores the culture’s destructive obsession with war and honor.

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The role-juggling Kiana Johnson and Stephen Kime (who also play the white-coated techies) are particularly engaging as restive Roman commoners. Brutus (Samuel Richie) and Sicinius (Shayna Freedman), tribunes who manipulate and goad Rome’s citizens into punishing Coriolanus, appear as stylized talking heads on two screens, a touch that fits the gaming motif.

Reinforcing that motif, by suggesting that he has been defined and confined by others, Finley’s Coriolanus stays for much of the show in a marked-off center-stage area. When he finally breaks out, the moment is dramatic: The avatar has gone rogue. The escape also swells the emotion in his climactic showdown with Volumnia, who pleads for Rome’s safety. When Coriolanus responds, it’s as a person, not a game component.

In a time of war, strongmen, populism and anti-elitist sentiment, the themes of “Coriolanus” are as resonant as ever. Snappy and inviting, this new interpretation is shrewdly programmed for our vulnerable, massively multiplayer world.

Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare. Direction, adaptation and video design, Séamus Miller; fight and intimacy choreography, Bess Kaye; sound design/composition, Tom Carman; lighting, Solomon HaileSelassie; costumes, Alexa Cassandra Duimstra; props, Kathleen Akerley; scenic design consulting, Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden. 2 hours and 15 minutes. Through March 23 at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre 2, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. avantbard.org.

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