Saturday, August 10, 2019

52 (2019-2020): Review: CORIOLANUS (seen August 9, 2019)

You've read the reviews. Now read the book. THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE, 2012-2013 A Brief Memoir and Reviews

“No Piece of Cake”

Inclement weather prevented me from covering this summer’s first Shakespeare in the Park production, Much Ado about Nothing.  On Friday night, however, the elements conspired to create a perfect climate in which to observe the imperfect Coriolanus, last seen in a mainstream New York production (by the Red Bull Theatre) less than three years ago. (A little-noted production by the Shakespeare in the Square/Combative Theatre Company opened Off-Off Broadway around the same time.) 
Coriolanus. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Like that one (and so many others), Daniel Sullivan’s only fitfully effective revival of this tragedy, set in 493 BCE Rome, seeks to emphasize the play’s contemporary relevance (as if sandals and togas couldn’t just as readily do the job) by updating it, in this case to a dystopian future, devastated by climate change. Beowulf Boritt provides an imposing, shiny, patched-together setting of corrugated steel, constructed in large, separate, rolling units that change positions—including a wide-open space at center—to allow for visual variations. Japhy Weideman lights it all (especially the martial scenes) with the striking theatricality so familiar at the Delacorte. Where all this transpires, however, is anybody’s guess.
Nneka Okafor, Jonathan Cake. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Whereas the Red Bull version of this militaristic play was done in camo gear and combat boots, it’s hard to discern in Kaye Voyce’s grunge-dominated approach much that is notably military, or even to differentiate either the military or civilian statuses of one character from another. The tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sicinius Veletus, for example, look barely different from the plebeians. Only the body-hugging t-shirts and jeans that accentuate the physique of the impressively fit-looking, British actor Jonathan Cake as Coriolanus denote his position as a heroic warrior. And, if you don’t look closely, telling the Romans from their enemies, the Volscians, is not so easy, although the latter’s preference for baggy, black, basketball shorts offers one visual shortcut.

A large ensemble (32 actors; the Red Bull used only 12) supports Cake (who played the role at London’s Globe in 2006) as the prideful, arrogant Coriolanus, who “loves not the common people”; Kate Burton as Volumnia, his indomitable, dominating mother, who pushes him to seek political office; Teagle F. Bougere as Coriolanus’s witty, patrician friend, Menenius Agrippa; Tom Nelis as the fiery general and former consul, Cominius; Louis Cancelmi as the Volscian general, Tullus Aufidius, frustrated at being unable to overcome Coriolanus; and Jonathan Hadary and Enid Graham as the crafty, never-Coriolanus tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sicinius Veletus, who seek to prevent the antihero from his political ascension.
Enid Graham, Teagle F. Bougere, Jonathan Hadary. Photo: Joan Marcus.
For many years following World War II, it would seem, Coriolanus productions favored, not so much its political implications but the sociopsychological ones surrounding its title character. In 1981, Ralph Berry noted that, in the British theatre, postwar “producers . . . have not been notably interested in the play as a political tract.” Peter Hall’s 1984 production at the National Theatre, however, restored a sharp political edge to the play, with its insistence on the divide between the left and right. Similar approaches continue to prevail, especially in our ever more politicized environment, although it may now simply be impossible not to see the play in political terms, regardless of a director’s intent.
Emeka Guindo, Jonathan Cake, Nneka Okafor. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It’s also still apparent that the play’s “private core” as a study of a powerful man’s troubled psyche persists. Jonathan Cake’s remarkably buoyant performance clearly implies the usually raging Coriolanus’s childlike awe of his mother’s influence, for example. And there are moments in Cake’s performance that hint at a homoerotic attraction for Aufidius, a touch included as early as Tyrone Guthrie’s 1963 production at the Nottingham Playhouse.
Jonathan Cake, Teagle F. Bougere, Kate Burton. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In 2016, the play reflected the volatile conditions surrounding the presidential election. It continues to remind us of the separation between a wealthy political class (the one percent) and a needy proletariat, and of the difficulties of democracy in a divided electorate.. 

Its action centers on the rise to power of the patrician military hero, Caius Martius, awarded the honorary name of Coriolanus, who is most comfortable when his sword is slicing an enemy’s belly. His victory over the Volscians at Corioli inspires his mother to push him for the high political office of consul, only for his condescending attitude and stubbornness to prevent him from seeking the approval of the hoi polloi, which he disdains. (Director Sullivan, in Matt Wolf’s Playbill essay, touches on a number of Coriolanus’ Trumpian traits without naming any names.)
Ensemble of Coriolanus. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In spite of the advice offered by Volumnia and Menenius, he loses his cool and is banished by the citizens from Rome (he claims it’s he who’s banishing them!). He takes up with Aufidius and the Volscians against Rome before once again, under his mother’s influence, flip-flopping his allegiance and being slaughtered for his troubles by the Volscians. As I noted in 2016: 
For all its differences from today’s headlines, Coriolanus strikes brilliant sparks of contemporaneity in its depiction of an unpleasant, egotistical, angry, and prideful leader, incapable of self-understanding, and consumed by a drive for power and revenge. Coriolanus is a man whose personality is in direct conflict with the responsibilities of high public office, someone whose temperamental volatility is more of a threat than a solution to political problems in a painfully divided city-state.
Kate Burton and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Much of Sullivan’s production, helpfully backed by the sound design of Jessica Paz, the ominous music of Dan Moses Schreier, and the violence staged by Steve Rankin, has a propulsive energy, far too much so for my taste given the static nature of the plotting. Cake and Burton are dynamic performers but much of what they say and do (especially Cake) has an angry, even furious, tone that grows increasingly monotonous over the play’s two hour and 45 talky minutes. Each has moments of extreme clarity and readings of unexpected insight but neither they, nor the talented actors around them can save the play from drowning in its sea of rhetoric and bombast, too rarely contrasted with humor, even from Menenius.
Christopher Ryan Grant, Louis Cancelmi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This is Shakespeare in the Park’s first revival of Coriolanus in 40 years, The last one starred Morgan Freeman and Gloria Foster and was done in traditional Roman garb. Regardless of how long it takes before the next Delacorte version, one would hope it at least considered abandoning the increasingly tiresome modern dress idea and returning to something a bit more historically evocative and theatrically attractive. Its relevance, I’m sure, can take care of itself.

Delacorte Theater
Central Park at W. 82nd St., NYC
Through August 11