What kind of mothering raises the best servant to the people? Is it conditional or unconditional? This year’s Public Theater presentation of Shakespeare in the Park delivers an examination of mothering for political success in Coriolanus at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, directed by Daniel Sullivan.
Caius Martius (Jonathan Cake) is a mama’s boy to mother Voluminia (Kate Burton). Sullivan has him so tied to the apron strings that Cake rarely touches his own wife, Virgilia (Nneka Okafor), without at least glancing lovingly at Burton. I begin to crave a shower because Cake and Okafor are very hot together. Emotional incest is one condition of the mother’s love. The other is power. Shakespeare can be so dirty!
Speaking of dirty, Beowulf Boritt gives us a gloriously messy set of scrap metal, discarded water bottles and other solid pollutants, reminding us of our other mother who has borne our human transgression beyond her surplus. I hoped that this genius set would have been more of a character in the show, but Sullivan chose rather to highlight some juicy scene work with his actors.
Weary of the many crowd scenes of battles and political campaigns, I turned to my date, a fellow actor, at intermission saying, “It’s a pity we cannot criticize the writer.” He laughed, startled by my sacrilege. Well, dammit! Sometimes the Bard puts so much exposition in these scenes that they seem to go on forever and then, just when you think we are about to move along – oh boy – stage combat! Fight director, Steve Rankin, was not well supported. The combat was slow in pace and would have worked nicely with some better lighting effects – strobe? Yeah, I would have been down with that - and perhaps some more tension in the actors’ bodies. Instead, these scenes dragged.
Now for the juicy bits:
Cake is living in an incredibly hard body at the moment. His arms are so off the hook that I wanted to bite them. Caius Martius – cum – Coriolanus often fought solo against impossible numbers, flattening many in his wake. Yet, despite his mighty physicality, he cowers in the presence of Burton’s “mom stare” and we chuckle. Burton threatens crushing disappointment should he not feign humility to the pathetic plebeians and seek political office. He struggles with how to brag “mildly” about his legendary adventures in battle. His public campaign gives us a volatile hero who is not a people person. The peoples’ tribunes, Sicinius Veletus (Jonathan Hadary) and Junius Brutus (Enid Graham) seize upon Caius’ lack of confidence in the worthiness of the common folk to have him and quickly point out this insincerity to the fickle population. Before he is confirmed as Counsel, the people fall quickly out of love with their hero and banish Coriolanus from Rome.
Flying into the arms of his enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Louis Cancelmi), the leader of the city he just vanquished to get all this notoriety, we find Coriolanus in a rather homo-erotic negotiation for an agreement to sack Rome together. The titillation goes far beyond the pleasure of watching Cancelmi stroke that sexy thick beard of his over and over again; as doors close on the two warriors, the citizens mug knowingly at the audience. Naughty!
Back in Rome, Hadary and Graham enjoy a wonderful sexless chemistry. They lazily drink gin in Borritt’s beautiful junk yard while congratulating the people, their useful idiots, for having such clever tribunes as themselves.
News of Rome’s imminent peril inspires Voluminia and Virgilia to beg for mercy from the mighty Coriolanus. Virgilia is the only character who approaches anything close to love in her actions. Okafor is so sexy as the obedient, dutiful political wife who finds strength to crawl out from under the thumb of her mother-in-law and use her affections to manipulate for a world good. Sealed with the tenderest of kisses, her lessons come too late to our flawed hero-clown, Coriolanus.
Sexy, dirty and reflective of politics hijacking humanity, this production of Coriolanus is a pretty satisfying bit of entertainment.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"Jonathan Cake finds the cracks in the macho surface of Shakespeare’s strangest tragic hero in Daniel Sullivan’s fiery production in Central Park."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Like its close cousin Julius Caesar, which the Public presented two years ago in a much-misunderstood production, Coriolanus is concerned with the dual threats of tyranny and the madness of crowds. Sullivan’s version sets the action in a postapocalyptic world of scarce resources and ugly corrugated metal (the striking set is by Beowulf Boritt) that calls attention to the play’s plangent modern resonances. Politics in Coriolanus is a game that must be played—and played with care. The alternative is tragedy."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"T.S. Eliot may have preferred Coriolanus to Hamlet, but Daniel Sullivan’s uneven new production at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park offers a muddled case for its virtues."
Thom Geier for The Wrap
"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?"
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter