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Jonathan Cake portrays Shakespeare’s brash antihero, Coriolanus, like a mix between superstar New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in Daniel Sullivan’s riveting version, which opened tonight at the Public’s Delacorte Theater. The first Shakespeare in the Park production of the 1607 play since Wilford Leach’s staging in 1979 with Morgan Freeman — James Earl Jones starred as the title character in the only other Delacorte presentation of the work, Gladys Vaughn’s 1965 adaptation — Sullivan sets the play in a contemporary junkyard strewn with old tires, a burned-out car, random detritus, and a rickety steel gate. (The postapocalyptic design is by Tony winner Beowulf Boritt.)
Caius Martius (Cake) has returned to Rome after singlehandedly defeating the Volscians, who are led by his longtime nemesis, General Tullus Aufidius (Louis Cancelmi). Rechristened Coriolanus after his victory, Martius has nothing but disdain for the common folk, who are starving, scavenging for food on the streets. The conquering hero is soon the centerpiece of a power struggle in pre-imperial Rome, championed by the upper classes as their savior against the rabble. While his patrician supporters, including Senator Menenius Agrippa (Teagle F. Bougere), army commander Cominius (Tom Nelis), and General Titus Lartius (Chris Ghaffari), want him to run for consul to gain political power over the “beastly plebians,” the people’s tribunes Junius Brutus (Enid Graham) and Sicinius Velutus (Jonathan Hadary) are suspicious of him and so attempt to turn the starving mob against him in the upcoming election. Martius, who is married to the pregnant Virgilia (Nneka Okafor), father to Young Martius (Emeka Guindo), and son to the forceful, determined Volumnia (Kate Burton), is a fiery, insolent, and almost monstrously arrogant character, and he can’t keep his mouth shut; all too soon he comes up with a dangerous plan of revenge that threatens everything, and everyone, he loves.
At more than two and a half hours (with intermission), Coriolanus is long and drawn out, with a compelling main storyline but mundane, barely there subplots, perhaps because this tale is entirely fictional, not based on actual historical events. The play has never been brought to Broadway, and it is rarely revived; Michael Sexton’s 2016 Red Bull production found a way in by setting it during the Occupy movement and placing the audience in the center of the action. However, on a more conventional stage, it can prove significantly problematic, although Sullivan does a good job navigating through the bumps. The acting is inconsistent, although Public Theater mainstay Bougere (Cymbeline, Is God Is) is excellent as Martius’s right-hand man, Nelis (Girl from the North Country, Indecent) is a fine Cominius, and three-time Tony nominee Burton (The Elephant Man, The Constant Wife) is brilliant as Martius’s strong-willed mother. Tony winner Sullivan (Proof, The Comedy of Errors) makes the most of Volumnia’s line about her son being a man-child; the warrior Martius often turns into a little boy when speaking to his mommy, eliciting major laughs. It’s a stark counterpoint to his bravery in battle and his burgeoning frenemy bromance with Aufidius. It’s also a keen look at the voting process, particularly now that election season is under way in the United States, as the people and the pundits debate over who’s worthy and who’s not, who’s genuine and who is a power-hungry, mean-spirited liar.