Economic inequality, populist unrest and mistrust of political leaders and big business — all defining themes of the current election season — pervade two very different Off-Broadway shows: Red Bull Theater Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy “Coriolanus” and Lynn Nottage’s working-class drama “Sweat.”
In “Coriolanus,” the title character, a Roman military leader (the outstanding Dion Johnstone) who refuses to pander to the masses while running for public office, is spurned and exiled for his defiant arrogance. Seeking revenge, he aligns with a foreign enemy, threatening the safety of his family and homeland.
Michael Sexton’s muscular modern-dress production at the Barrow Street Theatre invokes the spirit of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, with commoners getting up in arms over what they perceive to be a corrupt and rigged society. A scene where a ballot box is smashed apart with a baseball bat is especially disturbing.
Although it is rarely staged, “Coriolanus” is a solid and straightforward drama, and Red Bull deserves a lot of credit for having the foresight to bring it back into the public eye at this very moment and for presenting it with such vitality. Joining Johnstone are Stephen Spinella, Lisa Harrow and Patrick Page.
In “Sweat,” Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Ruined,” depicts a Pennsylvania industrial town circa 2000, where the local plants are shutting down, production is shifting to Mexico and lifelong unionized workers are suddenly out of work, leading to rage, racial fearmongering, strained friendships, drug abuse and violence.
As directed by Kate Whoriskey, “Sweat” is a timely and sympathetic exploration of a community on the verge of collapse and the economic stress and strain and overwhelming sense of hopelessness that has accompanied the loss of blue-collar manufacturing jobs. The excellent ensemble includes Johanna Day, John Earl Jelks and Miriam Shor.