New York City Theater
One of Shakespeare’s least known, most political, endlessly fascinating plays, “Coriolanus” is being given an uneven but bold rendering by the Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Highlighting Jonathan Cake’s vigorous portrayal of the title character and Kate Burton’s fierce one as his macho mom, the evening, though lengthy and suggesting more than it delivers, is most assuredly a bang-on play for our troubled time.
Set in some dystopian future – Beowulf Boritt’s bombed-out set of corrugated metal is filled with the detritus of endless wars, including the shell of a burned car – it’s a pessimistic work of ignoble, irredeemable characters. Even the tragic hero, Caius Martius (Cake), later honored as Coriolanus for his single-handed victory over the town of Corioli, is unsympathetic. Arrogant, insulting, proud and obstinate, he’s every citizen’s nightmarish leader, especially in a democracy.
Actually, he doesn’t even want to be leader, except on the battlefield. He gets his kicks from killing, especially the Volscians, led by Tullus Aufidius (Louis Cancelmi). The unstated, unfulfilled homoerotic relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius adds another layer of motivation for his later actions.
At home Coriolanus is a mama’s boy. In public, he’s a snob, knocking the commoners, more than hinting that democracy, in the wrong hands, is just as dangerous as dictatorship. Thankfully, he doesn’t live long enough to try out his demagogic tendencies. (“You common cry of curs,” he shouts to the people, “whose breath I hate.”) And before he’s banished from Rome, he manages to say, “I banish you. . . I turn my back. There is a world elsewhere.”
That world is with the rival Volscians, whose forces he joins and with whom he attacks his native Rome. Only his dear mom can save the city from his fury with fury of her own (“Anger is my meat,” she says). But, by pleading with him, she returns him to the Volscians, ensuring his doom.
If Coriolanus is a force of nature, surely, as his frenemy Aufidius notes, he is entitled to conquer Rome by “the sovereignty of nature.” Is that what natural man is, egotistical and selfish? Shakespeare assigns such traits to both plebeians and aristocrats.
Cake is an angry Coriolanus, shouting his virility. If he lacks poetry, so, for the most part, does the play. As his mother, Voluminia, Burton is neurotic and unloving, reveling in her son’s wounds. Outstanding in the large cast are Teagle F. Bougere as a fellow patrician, Cancelmi as the straightforward Aufidius and Enid Graham and Jonathan Haradry as scheming tribunes.
The production’s ruined landscape is enhanced by Japhy Weideman’s threatening lighting design, Kaye Voyce’s ratty costumes, Jessica Paz’s clarifying sound design and Dan Moses Schreier’s haunting soundscape. A word, too, for Steve Rankin’s fight direction.
Daniel Sullivan’s direction emphasizes the play’s bloodier angles, giving shorter shrift to Coriolanus’ conflict with himself, his belonging nowhere. Neither hero nor villain, Roman nor Volscian, Coriolanus may not even be human. He is more “like a thing made by some other deity than nature.”
--David A, Rosenberg
August 7, 2019