In Review: “The Normal Heart” and “Coriolanus” at New Epic Theater

THE NORMAL HEART
by Larry Kramer

CORIOLANUS
by William Shakespeare

Featuring Zach Curtis, Antonio Duke, JuCoby Johnson, Torsten Johnson, Michelle O’Neill, Adam Qualls, Grant Sorenson, and Michael Wieser
Directed by Joseph Stodola
Presented by New Epic Theater

This is going to be a slightly unusual review for a number of reasons. When I had heard that New Epic Theater was planning on performing William Shakespeare’s political tragedy Coriolanus and Larry Kramer’s agitprop drama The Normal Heart in repertoire, I was surprised by the decision. At first blush, the pairing didn’t make sense. But now, having seen both plays (which will play in repertory at The Lab Theater in Minneapolis through April 16), I was stunned by what director Joseph Stodola and his brilliant company of actors (a powerhouse ensemble consisting of Zach Curtis, Antonio Duke, JuCoby Johnson, Torsten Johnson, Michelle O’Neill, Adam Qualls, Grant Sorenson, and Michael Wieser) have accomplished with these two pieces.

To explain what they managed to pull off, I will have to get very specific with this review, which will lead into major spoilers regarding how the plays are presented and staged. And I beg of you, do not read the rest of this review until you have seen both plays for this will only make sense if you see them both and see them cold. By all means, do know the plots going in if that’s your ilk, but the real power of what is going on here is if you the audience do not know what surprises lay in store with these productions. And if you can, see The Normal Heart first, and then Coriolanus.

But since this is supposed to be a review and I’m supposed to have an opinion on this matter, I’ll make this brief: Go! This is one of the most audacious theatrical experiments I’ve seen in town in a long time delivered by a top-flight ensemble that manages to take some serious risks that work.

So get over to the Lab and see both of these shows! When you’re done, come back and then we’ll talk…

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Michael Wieser (foreground) with Michelle O’Neill and JuCoby Johnson in New Epic Theater’s production of The Normal Heart

To start our highly spoilerific look, let’s first look at The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s agitprop roman à clef retelling of the early days of the AIDS pandemic in New York City in the early 1980s as seen through the eyes of writer and reluctant activist Ned Weeks (Michael Wieser). The play chronicles Weeks and his friends and colleagues (Antonio Duke, Torsten Johnson, and Adam Qualls) slowly building an organization to deal with this strange new disease that was working its way through gay men, and how they deal in the face of personal tragedy, government and medical ignorance, and resistance from within the gay community as a whole.

To understand The Normal Heart, you have to understand where Kramer’s mind was at the time he wrote it. After founding it, Kramer was unceremoniously drummed out of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1983 and was adrift. After reflecting on what he saw was complacency at every turn – from the government, from the media, from the gay community as a whole – he wrote what would be the angriest piece of any play dealing with AIDS ever created for the theatre. Even when it was revived on Broadway in 2011 and then filmed by Ryan Murphy in 2014, Kramer’s righteous fury at the core of The Normal Heart still manages to make it an unsettling piece of theatre. (And sadly poignant as evidenced by Kramer’s flyer that he handed out in front of the theatre during the 2011 revival, and most recently in the wake of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent remarks about the Reagan presidency and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.)

JuCoby Johnson and Michael Wieser in New Epic Theater's production of The Normal Heart.

JuCoby Johnson and Michael Wieser in New Epic Theater’s production of The Normal Heart

If there’s one thing that surprised me about Mr. Stodola’s production, it’s that he has gone for a more humanistic approach to the piece. This doesn’t mean that any of Ned’s (and by extension Kramer’s) anger has been dulled. It’s just Stodola’s exacting direction has gotten fully realized character work from all of his actors; which, in turn, makes the characters’ complaints about Ned land with a ring of authenticity. In other words, Ned may be right in his beliefs, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a loudmouthed jerk at times (which neatly parallels Kramer’s thorny relationship with the gay scene in the early 1980s; particularly in the wake of his novel Faggots and his articles in the New York Native which made him vilified by the gay community). This also gives Ned a little more self awareness. In earlier productions of the piece, Kramer’s belief in Ned (which is the character he based on himself) is so strong that any complaints against him, his character, or his actions seems null and void given that he is ultimately proven right. It is a testament to Stodola’s direction and Michael Wieser’s charismatic performance as Ned that they can deftly balance Ned’s anger – with society, with his peers, and most poignantly with himself – with a leavening dose of self-depreciation that makes him a much more compelling protagonist and keeps the audience on Ned’s side without diluting Ned’s growing rage.

This deft act of balancing the political, the agitprop, and the personal extends to the other characters as well, and Stodola gets terrific work from his ensemble, with standout work from Zach Curtis (as Ned’s straight-laced lawyer brother Ben, based on Kramer’s famous lawyer brother Arnold), Michelle O’Neill (as the polio-ridden doctor Emma Brookner), JuCoby Johnson (as Ned’s lover Felix), Adam Qualls (who deftly handles Mickey’s soul-crushing breakdown in Act Two), and, as first among equals, Antonio Duke (who is news to me but manages to dominate the stage as Ned’s confidante Tommy; which Kramer based on legendary gay activist Rodger McFarlane, who would become the executive director of GMHC and a founding member of ACT UP with Kramer and eventually Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS).

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Michael Wieser (standing) and the cast in New Epic Theater’s production of The Normal Heart

If you’ve been following Stodola’s work, then you know that he frequently employs Brechtian epic theatre techniques in his stage work, with the effect being a heightened theatrical aspect that gives equal weight to both the story being told and how that story is being told. And while The Normal Heart has always been mounted in a more spartan manner, Stodola’s choices are startling for how much sense they make. The set is dominated by two rows of metal office desks framed with fluorescent lights; an ever present symbol of the encroaching bureaucracy that the characters are fighting against. And while the production manages to nail the iconic moments of the staging (in particular the food fight in Act Two), it also takes a few lyrical leaps in its storytelling; such as the inspired use of the music of Freddie Mercury to score the play, and the fantastic prologue created in collaboration with movement director James Kuntz that codifies Ned’s isolated status as the last man standing in the wake of a crisis. All of these elements serve to make this production of The Normal Heart a tragedy of one man’s insurmountable fight against everything for what he believes is right.

***

If it seems that I’ve devoted a lot of space to how Mr. Stodola staged The Normal Heart, there’s a big reason for that. As I entered the Lab to see Coriolanus, I was shocked to see…

…the exact same set for The Normal Heart!

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Torsten Johnson (center) with the cast in New Epic Theater’s production of Coriolanus

With the exception of a tall ladder bolted upstage center, everything (including the projection of the same excerpt from W. H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939”) was the same. And here is where the genius of Mr. Stodola’s reason for playing these two works together comes through: in telling the story of the Roman general Caius Marcius Coriolanus (Torsten Johnson) shunned by an ungrateful society into the arms of his enemy, he is clearly seeing the parallels between him and Ned Weeks, which can be summed up in this stanza from the Auden poem:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Stodola’s vision of the parallels between both shows extends into the actual staging of the several key scenes. In an echo of Ned at his typewriter at the start of The Normal Heart, Coriolanus finds our hero slowly building a chalk circle around himself. When our hero dies at the end at the hand of his enemies, it’s the inverse of the prologue in the other play where Ned is left as the last man standing amongst the bodies of his friends and lovers. Not only that, but several key props find their way from one show to the other in startling effect. When Coriolanus has to go before the plebeians to beg for their support by showing his war wounds, he is wearing the same blue hospital gown that Felix is in for the majority of Act Two of The Normal Heart. The Roman senator Menenius (Zach Curtis) is always in Dr. Brookner’s wheelchair (which could have been a cheesy convenience except for a key moment near the end of the play). At times Coriolanus’ scenes with his arch enemy Aufidius (Michael Wieser) take on a more heightened tone that clearly echoes Ned’s confrontations with Bruce.

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Torsten Johnson (center) with the cast in New Epic Theater’s production of Coriolanus

And that leads me to the other great thing about this piece; the casting. Mr. Stodola has ruthlessly trimmed away the excess characters in the piece and brilliantly aligned the roles to deliberately call back to each actor’s role in The Normal Heart, while managing to bring forth all the gallows humor of this piece. Even though I found his performance as Bruce in the Kramer play a little too arch for my tastes, Torsten Johnson is perfectly cast here in the title role; with a muscular take on the role (and I’m not just talking physically, though there is plenty of that) that manages to find all of the wounded pride of a man so mistreated by the people he defended that he would go running into the arms of his enemy. Speaking of that enemy, Mr. Wieser is gloriously unhinged as Aufidius. Mr. Curtis is spectacular as Menenius, the ultimate political wheeler and dealer, and he calmly controls every scene he’s in until events spiral out of his control. Grant Sorenson and Adam Qualls are gloriously evil as the scheming tribunes Brutus and Sicinius, counterbalanced by Antonio Duke and JuCoby Johnson as the loyal Titus and Cominius (again echoing the split with Mickey and the city worker Hiram Keebler in the anti-Ned camp, while Tommy and Felix are pro-Ned). And Michelle O’Neill dominates the stage as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia. In this manly play dealing with manly things, she manages to be the perfect overreaching foil for her son, and their scenes together (particularly at the end when Volumnia is begging her son to spare Rome) are electric.

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Zach Curtis, Michelle O’Neill, and Torsten Johnson in New Epic Theater’s production of Coriolanus

As much as I loved these productions, I had two issues; one small and one large. The first issue was that, as much as both stories are telling the story of one man against the injustice he sees, it’s pretty clear that Shakespeare and Kramer have different views on their respective endgames for their protagonists. In Coriolanus, Shakespeare uses the tale as an object lesson in the need for the occasional compromise; Caius learns that lesson too late and ends up dead. By contrast, Kramer is saying, in no uncertain terms, that comprise, more than silence, equals death. It was the GMHC’s constant default of “making nice” to a city government that didn’t give a shit that caused so much death. That being said, the bigger issue for me is this: As well done as this production is, and as brilliantly staged and acted as it is, this production of Coriolanus makes no sense unless you have seen The Normal Heart. All of the symbolism inherent in Mr. Stodola’s staging of the Shakespeare play only reaches its fullest impact if you can compare and contrast it to his staging of the Kramer play. This dependency is unfortunately a one-way street, as you can watch The Normal Heart and get everything that’s going on, but you need to have seen it to appreciate what is really happening in the other play.

This disparity between the two shows ultimately did not dampen my enthusiasm for the productions. And as I said at the beginning of this piece, this is one of the most audacious things I’ve ever seen a company do; finding the parallels between two apparently disparate stories and using similar methods and iconography to tell both stories of a man trying to “undo the folded lie” around them. And thanks to some thrilling ensemble work, New Epic manages to do just that in two elegant productions.

***

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Torsten Johnson and Michael Wieser in New Epic Theater’s production of Coriolanus

New Epic Theater’s productions of The Normal Heart and Coriolanus will play in repertory through April 16; with performances Thursdays – Sundays at 8pm and both plays presented on Saturday, April 16 with The Normal Heart at 4pm and Coriolanus at 8pm. All performances take place at The Lab Theater, located at 700 N 1st St in Minneapolis. Tickets are $29 and can be purchased at The Lab Theater’s website.

Photo Credit: Patrick Kennedy

Originally Published on 31 March 2016 for l’étoile

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