“By Jupiter“, this Coriolanus is by far “the best man in the field“, or at least at the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park this summer, matched only by the powerful and numerous lightning shards that criss crossed the skies the night we made our way into Central Park. This rarely performed Shakespearean tragedy with a blood-thirsty vibe, stomps and storms the Delacorte Stage as strongly and confidently as the titular character played to a muscular max by the fantastic Jonathan Cake (TFANA’s Measure for Measure) diving into combat. His Caise Martius is a magnificent complication; an unsympathetic leader, hard to fully engage with or wrap your head around. He’s an arrogant fierce warrior addicted to the combative conflict of war yet reluctant to be praised by his compatriots and not willing to be seen as a man who might exploit his successes for political power. Seen as a fearless hero and warring god by his fellow soldiers and politicians, he also elevates and privileges himself above the masses because of his societal class and perceived intelligence. Contemptuous of the lower class people of Rome, his caustic rigid pride radiates outwards slapping hard all that he sees standing below him, while actively disliking praise from the same simple folk as it might imply that his self-worth is balancing on the edge of someone else’s blade. “He has no equal“, they say, and Cake delivers us the stance and posture of a true warrior cut with an aggressive yet arrogant power “too proud to be more valiant“. His Coriolanus is slashed and bruised by his outlook, damned in all directions as the complex tragic hero whose flaws remain bandaged until the violent end.
The play, one of Shakespeare’s last tragedies written sometime between 1605 and 1608, was based on the life of the legendary Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus. As a Shakespearean tragic hero, he is perhaps the most impenetrable, rarely stopping his rampage to reveal internal thought processes through soliloquy, and less likely to hypothesis his motives through reflection like other Shakespearean centerpieces such as Macbeth, Hamlet, or King Lear. Cake manages to find focus in the blurred and hard to unwrap construct, giving him a strength and conviction that we can at least comprehend although we never fully support his rigid and stubborn arrogance. His most loyal friend, Menenius Agrippa, performed with power and authority by Teagle F. Bougere (Public’s Socrates), tries his best to give forth an alternative in an attempt to break through, but to no avail. Coriolanus is ultimately a Freudian tale, sliced to the bone by the deep entanglement of a desperately attached son and his proud distant mother, Volumnia, majestically portrayed by the formidable Kate Burton (Broadway’s Present Laughter), a woman who couldn’t be more pleased that her son would seeks danger and battle over the comfort of his wife, Virgilia, played by Nneka Okafor (Public’s Troilus and Cressida), and son, portrayed by Emeka Guindo (LCT’s Camelot).
Diving headfirst into battle, Caise Maritus is honorably renamed Coriolanus after triumphing against his rival and the Volscians’ leader, Tukkus Aufidius, handsomely played by the dynamic Louis Cancelmi (Signature’s Everybody), and claiming the enemy town of Corioli as his own single handedly. Pushed by the Senate of Rome and his demanding stern mother, Coriolanus seeks political office, but his temperament is not suited for the post or the political ring. And because of the aggressive posturing by the consuls of the people; namely Junius Brutus, deftly portrayed by Enid Graham (Broadway’s M. Butterfly) and Sicinius Velutus, wisely portrayed by Jonathan Hadary (Broadway’s Spamalot) who stir up trouble and a backlash for pride-filled warrior, he is quickly banished from the city to the vocal protest cries of hate by the very people of Rome whom he fought wars for. Being the man he is, he is destined to seek revenge on the city and the people, but his complex alliances along the way and throughout his life, bring about an ending that is pure Shakespearean and a slick and bloody warning sign to those who are filled to the brim with pride and aggressive anger. No good will come to this stubborn man, and we are left in a complex puzzle, most deftly by Shakespeare, whether to be riled up, mourn the destruction, or nod in understanding.
Directed with force and fury by Daniel Sullivan (MTC’s The Little Foxes), the charged battles rage with intensity and determination, steeling our hearts to this warrior god, especially when paired most homoerotically with his enticing and captivating counterpart, Cancelmi’s Aufidius. Their balanced embrace and aggression register with force, countering their combative nature with their adoration. On a stage given the full post-apocalyptic heavy metal treatment by scenic designer Beowulf Boritt (Broadway’s Come From Away), with detailed coordinating costumes by Kaye Voyce (Public’s Sea Wall/A Life), a strong lighting design by Japhy Weideman (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hanson), and a solid sound design by Jessica Paz (Broadway’s Hadestown), Coriolanus strives forward with a vengeance and stabbing determination under the lightning-filled summer skies of Central Park. This tragedy soars, engaging and captivating us with a mother/son dynamic worthy of the Greeks and all of us psychoanalytically trained therapists in the audience. Beautifully embodied by the large cast of pros, this Coriolanus rises up into the heavens as he falls forward into a pool of his own bloody making. Powerful and utterly fascinating, the tragedy never is able to calm itself (thankfully) to answer the call mildly, and rarely “like a dull actor“, does this piece forget its power and blood-filled part in this noble tragic memory. And for that, “I’ll do well yet” and be grateful for what The Public Theater has bestowed on New York City.
Next up: Over 200 cast members prepare the Delacorte for the Public Works’ Hercules. I only wish I was around that week….
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