T.S. Eliot may have preferred “Coriolanus” to “Hamlet,” but Daniel Sullivan’s uneven new production at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park offers a muddled case for its virtues.
The troubles start with Jonathan Cake (“Desperate Housewives”), who brings a buff boyishness to the title role of a high-born Roman soldier whose contempt for the common man is not unjustified given their apparent willingness to run from a fight (leaving him to defeat an entire city single-handedly).
Exiled by the Roman populace and scheming politicians because of his obstinate (if justified) pride, he then conspires with Rome’s enemies to seek vengeance on his homeland. But too often, Cake overplays Coriolanus as a petulant man-child who pumps his fist and whines like a spoiled little boy who’d rather break all the toys than let anyone else play with them.
As his mother, Volumnia, Kate Burton is on surer ground — as ruthless in her ambition for her son as she can be heartless in considering any paths to greatness beyond military glory. Coriolanus may be a mama’s boy, but it seems unlikely that this savvy, steel-willed woman would have raised this rigid little brat.
Teagle F. Bougere also makes an impression as Menenius, a high-born Roman senator and ally of Coriolanus who is also beloved by the rabble.
But for a show that makes much of class distinctions, and how the elite can be out of touch with the needs of the masses, Kaye Voyce’s modern-day costumes are uniformly drab no matter how high-born the character is. It’s a curious visual leveling — one that contributes to confusion among audience members less familiar with the story. If everyone is living like a refugee in Beowulf Boritt’s postapocalyptic set — with corrugated-metal fortresses, a burned-out car in the corner and litter scattered downstage — then why do these class differences matter so much?
It almost makes you long for a Shakespearean production set in ancient times.