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Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through August 11, 2019
Jonathan Cake in Coriolanus (photo: Joan Marcus)
I had hopes for Daniel Sullivan’s Central Park production of Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s most explicitly political plays, whose eponymous protagonist is a military man through and through, a Roman general with little thought—and even less use—for ordinary citizens.
But Sullivan succumbs to an apparent desire to smooth out the edges of this difficult, troubling drama, flattening a richly complex psychological portrait of a fatally prideful man into a dimestore Freudian melodrama about a mama’s boy, which is not what Shakespeare intended.
From his first appearance, Gaius Martius displays his naked contempt for those who aren’t his comrades in arms. When he returns to Rome a hero after halting the advance of the hated Volscian army, he is talked into running for the office of consul by his controlling mother, Volumnia, and the friendly senator Menenius, who bestows on him the honored title of “Coriolanus.”
But Coriolanus isn’t a politician: he can’t fake having compassion for the plebians, and when confronted by who he thinks are insolent rabble-rousers in the public and senate, he loses his temper and insults them, bemoaning how it’s fine for “crows to peck the eagles.” Unsurprisingly, popular opinion turns against him and he is banished. Angrily offering himself to Aufidius, the leader of the Volscian enemy, he joins with him to attack Rome and gain some revenge.
There are plentiful layers of conflict that Shakespeare lays out, but Sullivan is content to show everything in superficial black and white, as it were, instead of subtler shades of grey. So Coriolanus cowers when his mother Volumnia speaks, making their relationship more one-sided (and laugh-getting from an audience accustomed to being spoonfed) than it should be. That Kate Burton gives one of her most trenchant performances as Volumnia and Jonathan Cake is a curiously one-dimensional Coriolanus with a weirdly droning Rambo-like voice further makes the mother-son bond implausible.
Beowulf Boritt’s post-apocalyptic set of relentless monochromatic dullness comprises trash cans, a burnt-out car and sheets of corrugated metal, while Kaye Voyce has designed costumes of unremitting ugliness, with no differentiation between Romans and Volscians, leaders and ordinary people. Aside from Burton, only Teagle F. Bougere’s Menenius has a firm grasp of Shakespeare’s potent language. As Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia, Nneka Okafor makes no impression; although her part is small, it’s crucial to establishing the couple’s conjugal respect. Without it, everything that comes after remains unaffecting and remote. Even Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film, flawed in many ways, captured that crucial notion conspicuously missing from Sullivan’s impassive production.
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY
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