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Coriolanus

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 5, 2019


Jonathan Cake, Teagle F. Bougere, and Kate Burton
Photo by Joan Marcus

Dark and heavy clouds are hovering over the Delacorte Theater these days, though these are not the kind that occasionally threaten to soak the audiences who attend one of the Public Theater's free Shakespeare-in-the-Park performances in the open air of Central Park. There simply is nothing summery-light about the current production of Coriolanus, in which the play can be seen as less a traditional Shakespearean tragedy than a biting political satire in which the central character, so courageous in battle, rises to the level of his incompetence and vainglory when he is named consul and nearly topples all of Rome as a consequence. Add to that a smothering and controlling mother whose love is always conditional, and you've got a humdinger of a downer.

He is not a pleasant fellow, this Caius Martius (the tag "Coriolanus" is added after a military victory against the Volscian city of Corioles), and Jonathan Cake plays him to the hilt as an inordinately haughty member of the patrician class who holds the commoners in utter contempt. At one point, he refers to them as "curs, whose breath I hate" and "whose loves I prize as the dead carcasses of unburied men." And that's to their faces. Behind their backs, he calls them the "rank-scented many" who have the audacity to demand a fair share of grain from the public stores. While he never says "let them eat cake," you get the picture.

If Coriolanus were merely about the rise and fall of a bombastic windbag, it would be enough to make its point. But Shakespeare and the emphases placed by director Daniel Sullivan paint a vivid portrait of a governing body that is corrupt to the core, filled with self-important politicos who flip-flop with the wind and gleefully use their powers of persuasion to manipulate the easily-swayed plebeians. Among these silver-tongued snakes are two tribunes (well played by Enid Graham and Jonathan Hadary), who distrust Coriolanus so much that they no sooner work to elevate him to the rank of consul than they set the crowd against him and send him into banishment. And that is just Act I, which ends with Coriolanus ominously proclaiming to his home town foes, "I banish you!" as he storms off into exile and to plot his revenge by hooking up with his former archenemy, Tullus Aufidius (Louis Cancelmi), with whom he plans a scorched-earth assault on Rome.

If there is cause to feel any sympathy for Coriolanus, it should come from the portrait of his upbringing by his mother Volumnia, who has raised him to bring to fruition her own ambitions and who works him like a puppet on a string. In other productions of the play, Volumnia has come off rather like the steely and controlling mother played by Angela Lansbury in the 1962 film of "The Manchurian Candidate." Here, Kate Burton downgrades her more to the status of "Tiger Mom," so that Coriolanus's character flaws seem more in keeping with his own nature and less by her self-serving design. A little more monstrous nastiness would seem to be in order. This is, after all, a mother who relishes seeing her son return from battle seriously injured so that she can use the image of his bravery to elevate him to the highest ranks of the government by her friends in the Senate and, especially, by Coriolanus's steadfast friend Menenius Agrippa (Teagle F. Bougere).

To underscore the downbeat tone, Beowulf Boritt has designed a set that gives the appearance of a post-apocalyptic automobile junkyard, all corrugated steel gateways, a burned-out car, tires and oil drums, abetted by an appropriately banging clanging score by composer Dan Moses Schreier. I don't mean to suggest the infrequently-produced Coriolanus is not worth seeing; just be aware that this evening under the stars is more "A Midsummer Night's Nightmare" than A Midsummer Night's Dream.


Coriolanus
Through August 11
Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Enter at 81st Street & Central Park West or 79th Street & Fifth Avenue
Tickets and current Performance Schedule: publictheater.org


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