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Christopher Ryan Grant and Louis Cancelmi                            photos by Joan Marcus




                    by Arney Rosenblat



In Daniel Sullivan's engaging production of William Shakespeare's complex tragedy Coriolanus, he deftly explores the political pitfalls of the Democratic precept of power to the people through the rise and fall of Caius Martius Coriolanus who has the temerity to think real actions should speak louder than unctuous words in determining who should lead a democratic state.


The last time the Public Theater undertook a free summer production of Coriolanus was forty years ago but in these unsettling political times an exploration of democracy slipping off the rails has become increasingly relevant.  Though Shakespeare set the story in early Rome Tony-award winning director Daniel Sullivan (Proof, The Little Foxes) has created a post-apocalyptic vision as his Rome backdrop where the working-class plebeian populace is starving and angry blaming patrician greed for their plight.   "Hear me speak!" says Coriolanus' First Citizen as the play opens.  These three words resound throughout the work, raising the question as to who should have the right to speak out and guide a democracy.


Coriolanus is a play about class, about politics and about how those in power often manipulate their way to the top, which makes it both timely and a somewhat uncomfortable play to watch, particularly since its lead character Caius Martius Coriolanus is more anti-hero than hero. 


The story is pretty straight forward, Caius Martius is one super-star warrior in service of his home city-state Rome and when he virtually single handedly quells an attack by their arch enemies the Volscians distinguishing himself in combat against his chief rival Tullus Aufidius, the leader of the Volscians, played effectively by Louis Cancelmi, he is honored with the title Coriolanus and encouraged by his fellow patricians along with his proud ambitious mother to run for political office as consul.    


In pursuit of that campaign, Coriolanus is urged by all around him to speak "mildly" to the commoners whose votes, or "voices." he must secure if he is to be confirmed as consul and to curb his tendencies to always state the truth as he sees it,  He does try initially, in contravention to his very DNA, to do so, but he is eventually goaded by the people's Tribunes who fear his unvarnished honest ways, into speaking his mind and venting his contempt for this fickle uninformed so-called democratic mob.  The result is Coriolanus is accused of being a traitor to Rome and banished.  Forced to leave behind his mother, wife and young son. a furious and vengeful Coriolanus tells the Roman citizens that it is he who is banishing them and there is "a world elsewhere.".  This prompts his mother, Voluminia, to sadly remind him that "I would have you put your power well on before you had worn it out." and his friend Menenius to observe, "His nature it too noble for this world."


Hoping to revenge himself against an ungrateful Rome, Coriolanus decides that the enemy of his enemy is his friend and he seeks out his former foe Aufidius at Antium offering up his services, "Make me a sword of me," says Coriolanus to Aufidius, who gives him equal command of the Volscian troops as they march on Rome, a move that makes him increasingly jealous of Coriolanus as the latter becomes increasingly popular with the Volscians. At the gates of Rome friends and finally his family led by Volumnia his mother implore Coriolanus to spare Rome and make peace.  When Coriolanus accedes to his mother's pleas both know in their hearts, it means the death of Coriolanus by Aufidius and the Volscians


Like his choice of a dystopian setting for the play Coriolanus, Sullivan has also chosen to let the rules of class, status, and power be told solely through the words of the play rather than be shown through attire, designed by Kaye Voyce, and accoutrements  This sameness across the class perspective can be distracting and unhelpful at times.  The huge corrugated shape-shifting metal shed with rusting garbage cans, burnt-out cars and other detritus provided by Beowolf Boritt's scenic design, the sound design and percussive music score by Jessica Paz and Dan Moses Schreier, respectively, and the haunted lighting by Japhy Weideman add to the bleakness of the landscape.


The large cast is generally strong, and like Sullivan's decision to create a rough edge to the set and costumes, he has also chosen to foster the impressive aggressive physicality of Jonathan Cake's portrayal of Coriolanus playing down any signs of restrained dignity that might be associated with patrician roots.  Cake, an accomplished Shakespeare veteran, does capture with skill and gusto the war machine aspects of his character along with the obstinacy which leads to his ultimate downfall.  The determination for Cake to portray his character at full throttle from the moment he sets foot on stage does occasionally hamper his ability to show growth or change, but on the flip side Cake's ability to tap into rare moments of underlying humor, in the writing such as his promise to play the part of a politician and answer "mildly" (which is definitely counter to his nature) in order to court the  city's plebeians for their voices to make him consul was a welcome addition.


Kate Burton (downstage), Tom Nelis, Teagle F. Bougere, and Nneka Okafor in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Coriolanus, directed by Daniel Sullivan, running at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through August 11. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.


Among the standout performance that make the evening special are Kate Burton as Voluminia, Coriolanus' mother,  Though dressed in classless rags, the moment she speaks you recognize her as an iron-will patrician and a loving mother with great and just ambitions for her son..Her moving attempts as the play nears its end to persuade her son not to take out his vengeance on their homeland and destroy Rome, which leads to his eventual undoing, is definitely a highlight in the play.


Jonathan Cake, Biko Eisen-Martin, and Teagle F. Bougere


Other particularly outstanding performances are provided by Teagle F. Bougere as Menenius Agrippa who defines himself a "humorous patrician" or more accurately someone who understands the game  of politics, and persuading a populace through flattery.  Menenius is as close to a father figure and adviser as Coriolanus has..  Enid Graham and Jonathan Hadary as the Roman Tribunes Junius Brutus and Sicinius Veletus, respectively, are beautifully successful at manipulating the plebeians they allegedly serve to turn against Coriolanus, leading to his banishment, when they sense his uncompromising honesty threatens their hold over their constituents.  Nneka Okafor brings a warm naturalism to her role as Coriolanus's oft-neglected wife.


In exploring Coriolanus' contempt for the power of the general populace of Rome, perhaps it is a more cynical Shakespeare in his later years raising the question of who deserves a political voice and who is fit to lead in a democracy?  Coriolanus believed that an uninformed, uneducated and fickle populace was not fitted to make such decisions   As a note in the program points out, with the power of democracy comes responsibility as democracy can turn on itself and give way to what Coriolanus calls out as the "unstable slightness" of an changeable electorate.. This topic was also examined recently at another Public Theater production earlier this year about Socrates and the birth of democracy in Athens.


After viewing Daniel Sullivan's evocative take on this Shakespeare tragedy Coriolanus, you might also want to explore two other compelling interpretations both of which are currently streaming online.  Each is a fast paced, action-packed thriller::  the 2011 Ralph Fiennes film and the Donmar Warehouse production starring Tom Hiddleston



Public Theater - Delacorte

81 Central Park West


Running time 3 hours

Closing date August 11, 2019