Suddenly hot ‘Coriolanus’ takes Boston Common stage by storm

A ragtag crowd in knit hats and kerchiefs swarm up onto the stage on Boston Common at dusk. Though they look like Occupy Boston types –intentionally so—they’re not protesters, but cast-members of “Coriolanus,” the 17th annual free production of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (CSC), running through this Sunday.

“Coriolanus,” Shakespeare’s most political and second longest play is not often produced, but the thousands that nightly get swept up in CSC’s thoroughly gripping revival leave wondering why it isn’t done much more often.

CSC Artistic Director Steven Maler is hitching a little ride on the publicity generated by Ralph Fiennes’ big screen version of the tragedy that debuted to strong critical acclaim last December (93 percent approval on the Tomatometer of Rotten Tomatoes).

Though the CSC production and Fiennes’ film are done in modern dress, Shakespeare’s story hearkens back to a legendary Roman Republic general who finds that the fierceness that makes him invincible on the battlefield wins him few votes from the fickle plebeians when he runs for the high office of consul.

Hardly the typical baby-kissing sweet-talker, Coriolanus makes no bones about his contempt for the common people whose approval he’s supposedly soliciting. Their breath, he says, “I hate/As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize/As the dead carcasses of unburied men.”

The haughtiness of this hawk is just part of the problem for audiences who find none of the characters sympathetic enough to root for in this work in which Shakespeare deliberately experiments with what Brecht would later call “the alienation effect.” But here Maler once again demonstrates his marvelous skill at “redeeming” those works of the Bard that feature such off-putting heroes. Last year, Maler made the notoriously callow male lead Bertram less caddish and almost worthy the love of Helena in “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

This year, he achieves an even bigger and more complete triumph by casting in the title role the immensely charismatic Nicholas Carrèire, a New York actor who hails from West Bridgewater, MA. Far from seeming icy and unreasonable, Carrèire seethes with passion and an irresistible boyish brashness. His is the only character who blurts out the truth from his heart and gut, while everyone else (senators, tribunes, enemy leaders and his own family members) spout careful speeches more from personal and political expediency than from real feeling.

Audiences seem to relish the handsome, athletic actor’s mano a mano battle scenes ignited by Eric Southern’s explosive lighting and swept along by David Remedios’ rousing sound design.

Then too three CSC veteran actors once again turn in nuanced, multilayered performances : Fred Sullivan, Jr. as Menenius, Robert Walsh as Cominius and especially Karen McDonald as Volumnia, the original tiger-mom who treacherously turns her high-profile son back into a cowering cub.

Among the supporting cast members who get plenty of time on stage, if few lines to deliver is Michael Knowlton, who proudly notes in the program that he “grew up and currently resides in Dorchester.”

For more details on this surprisingly timely tornado of a tragedy that isn’t afraid to suggest that 99 percent are often the playthings of demagogues and to lob other bombs into the current election process discussion, go to commshakes.org.