'Coriolanus': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
From left: Tom Nelis, Teagle F. Bougere, Kate Burton and Nneka Okafo in 'Coriolanus'
Burton shines amid the tired visual tropes of a dystopian landscape.
8/11/2019

Jonathan Cake and Kate Burton star in the Central Park production of Shakespeare's lesser-known, politically resonant tragedy.

The new Shakespeare in the Park production of William Shakespeare's rarely performed tragedy makes the title seem inaccurate. Yes, the central figure in Coriolanus is the title character, an arrogant Roman general turned ruler whose contempt for the common people ultimately leads to his downfall. But thanks to the fiercely commanding performance by Kate Burton in this staging, Coriolanus' conniving mother is the most compelling figure onstage. Is it too late to rename the play Volumnia?

That's not to denigrate the starring turn by British actor Jonathan Cake, who does an excellent job of conveying Coriolanus' air of superiority, barely masked by his frequent protestations of modesty. Cake is a longtime Shakespeare veteran (this is not his first turn in this role), and he possesses a facility with the language and verse that's immeasurably crucial to this lesser-known work. You never have to strain to understand the meaning of what he's saying. He's also unusually physically qualified for the part, with his imposing height and well-sculpted muscularity providing a visual correlative to the character's arrogance. His Coriolanus is one who looks down on the common people vertically as well as intellectually. His physical stature also enhances the comic effect of the vainglorious mama's boy's obsequiousness toward his mother, in whose presence he practically cowers.

Nevertheless, it is Burton who runs away with the show, despite working under the handicap of her Volumnia being deglamorized with stringy hair and poverty-row costuming (more on that later). Burton superbly conveys the character's inner strength and Lady Macbeth-like manipulativeness while never letting us forget her underlying humanity and love for her son. Her delivery of the big speech toward the end of the play, in which Volumnia desperately attempts to dissuade Coriolanus from following through on his plans to destroy Rome, is breathtaking in its emotional intensity.

Which is a good thing, because for long stretches of its nearly three-hour running time, the production, directed in workmanlike fashion by Tony Award-winner and experienced Shakespearean hand Daniel Sullivan (Proof, The Little Foxes), seriously drags.

There's a reason Coriolanus isn't produced very often (it was last done in Central Park 40 years ago, with Morgan Freeman in the title role and a pre-stardom Denzel Washington in the ensemble); Shakespeare's dense tragedy is one of his more challenging plays, lacking both soaring poetry and sympathetic characters, and filled with long philosophical discussions about politics and class differences. It's a drama that requires intense concentration, something that can prove difficult outdoors on a sweltering summer night featuring the competing sounds of nature and the city.

Sullivan delivers a basically straightforward staging, devoid of high concept, that places the emphasis squarely on the text. Fortunately, he has enough solid performers in the supporting cast who can deliver it well, including Teagle F. Bougere as Coriolanus' fellow patrician and friend Menenius; Louis Cancelmi as Aufidius, the Volscian general with whom Coriolanus forms a temporary alliance; and Amelia Workman as Valeria, a family friend who joins Volumnia in her pleas to spare Rome. Enid Graham and Jonathan Hadary are particularly outstanding as the Roman tribunes scheming to precipitate Coriolanus' downfall (the latter amusingly providing an ancient Roman echo of his repellent political power broker on HBO's Veep).

The production's chief stylistic conceit is its vaguely modernistic, dystopian setting, something that has become such a cliched theatrical and cinematic trope that a long-term moratorium should be established. Rusting garbage cans, a burnt-out car and other assorted detritus litter Beowulf Boritt's scenic design, dominated by a large corrugated metal shed (the visuals prompted one of my colleagues to waggishly comment that it reminded him of Cats). The post-apocalyptic effect is further amplified by the loud rumbling of Jessica Paz's sound design and Dan Moses Schreier's percussive musical score, which will cause your dental fillings to rattle.

Worse still are Kaye Voyce's raggedy costumes, which not even the most undiscriminating thrift shop would accept as a donation. More problematically, nearly everyone onstage wears the same decrepit style, meaning that telling the patricians and plebeians apart often becomes a guessing game. The overall bleakness proves instantly wearying; the battle-heavy play has more than its share of bloody moments, but that shouldn't mean that our eyes have to bleed as well. It's all the more to her credit, then, that Burton manages to triumph over the costuming and decor.

Venue: Delacorte Theater, New York
Cast: Justin P. Armstrong, Teagle F. Bougere, Kate Burton, Jonathan Cake, Louis Cancelmi, Katherine Chin, Gregory Connors, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Biko Eisen-Martin, Bree Elrod, Nayib Felix, Josiah Gaffney, Chris Ghaffari, Enid Graham, Christopher Ryan Grant, Emeka Guindo, Jonathan Hadary, Suzanne Herschkowitz, Gemma Josephine, Thomas Kopache, Tyler La Marr, L'Oreal Lampley, Jack LeGoff, Alejandra Mangini, Louis Reyes McWilliams, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Nneka Okafor, Donovan Price, Sebastian Roy, Ali Skamangas, Jason Paul Tate, Amelia Workman
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Music: Dan Moses Schreier
Sound designer: Jessica Paz
Presented by The Public Theater