The glory that was Rome is best a mocking memory, the dank air in this squalor of corrugated tin panels, rusting oil drums and burnt-out cars before us on the stage of the Delacorte Theater. There’s music in the air all right, but it’s quiet clamor, grim and percussive. The mob fermenting within this injured world has an angry thirst for revolution, or at least a hunger for bread. They rail against the wealthy, who grow fat while they starve, and bear special grudge against Caius Martius, a conquering hero who flaunts his contempt for commoners.
Martius has an instinct for rudeness and a gift for throwing shade. “What’s the matter, you licentious rogues?” he all but spits out in his first encounter with the plebeians, “that rubbing the poor itch of your opinion make yourselves scabs?” When he returns from victory over Carioles and his bête noir Aufidius, he bears a new surname, Coriolanus, as proudly as the scars his mother loves to tally and boast as being worthier than fortune, fame or the peoples’ adulation.
Shakespeare had to go to a pretty dark place to create a hero as un-hero-like as Coriolanus. He’s a self-loving killing machine moved neither by a lust for power, like Macbeth, nor jealousy, like Othello. His mother dines out on the story of watching her son in childhood torture a butterfly before tearing it apart with his teeth. “The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes,” says the disillusioned Menenius. “He wants nothing of a god but eternity and a heaven to throne in.”
And as he did with the crowd in Julius Caesar, the playwright also takes pains to draw the Roman citizens as unwashed, unsophisticated and untrustworthy. Foul, foolish and fickle. If a calculated odor pervades the air of Coriolanus, it’s the stink of cynicism that may come with age. In creating a leader worshipped by the very people for whom he feels only deep contempt, perhaps Shakespeare was holding up the mirror to our own times, clever man.
Fortunately, director Daniel Sullivan has made no attempt to restate Coriolanus as a fable for our times. This lucid presentation may not be anyone’s idea of a fanciful evening in the enchanting greenery of Central Park. And yet there’s clarity and freshness of thinking that makes this final production of The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park (following the more broadly updated Much Ado About Nothing) so invigorating.
The principals are extremely well cast, led by Jonathan Cake, buff and gruff, in the title role, and Kate Burton as his monster Mom, yanking her son’s chain at every opportunity before emasculating him completely to save her own skin. The revelation is Louis Cancelmi as Corolanus’s nemesis, Aufidius. Against Cake’s stolid Coriolanus (he could be Gaston from Beauty and the Beast), Cancelmi’s Aufidius is shrewd and philosophical. You can almost see the gears clicking into place when his exiled enemy shows up at the door with his traitorist plan for revenge.
There’s a distinctly homoerotic emphasis in their meeting, when, like Hitler and Stalin, Coriolanus and Aufidius embrace: “Let me twine mine arms about that body,” Coriolanus says. “I loved the maid I married; never man sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here, thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart than when I first my wedded mistress saw bestride my threshold.” Be still my … heart.
I loved the clangy, percussive score composed by Dan Moses Schrier that sounded to me like a tribute to Harry Partch, the great California composer who added instruments of his own invention to the fantastical scores he wrote.
Beowulf Boritt’s shantytown set is a marvel of shape-shifting, aided considerably by Japhy Weideman’s purposely unforgiving lighting. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are vague yet persuasive in helping to make the case that every era has its Coriolanus, the leading man or woman who throws a wrench into the comforting machinery of our cosmology, which argues for the possibility of redemption when, as it happens, sometimes there’s just no redemption to be had.