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Theatre in Review: Coriolanus (Delacorte Theatre)/Measure for Measure (The Duke on 42nd Street)

Jonathan Cake, Kate Burton. Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Sam Liljas, Rebekah Brockman. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

This week sees major productions of two of William Shakespeare's problem plays; in each case, the director tackles the work's imperfections head-on, with differing degrees of success. For New York Shakespeare Festival, Daniel Sullivan has mounted a large-scale, well-cast Coriolanus -- always is a tricky enterprise, given the inflexible, one-dimensional title character; the playwright's blazingly cynical attitude toward democracy and its dysfunctions; and a plot that peters out in the second half, even as it concludes in a burst of violence. Like Julius Caesar, it is set in an Ancient Rome plagued by mob rule: Caius Martius, patrician warrior, defeats the Volscian invaders and, against his better judgment, allows himself to be put forward for the office of consul. But the very qualities that make him such a brilliant general -- his iron will, implacable drive, and violent allergy to acclaim -- fail him in the political sphere. Caught in the machinations of the city-state, faced with enemies who wish to undermine him, and refusing to pander to his fellow citizens, he sets himself up for disgrace and exile. Cut loose from his privileged existence, he makes common cause with his former enemies, threatening Rome with ruin but ultimately setting the stage for his own betrayal.

In contrast to Tom Hiddleston's rather strident performance at London's Donmar Warehouse in 2014 or Dion Johnstone's more bellicose take on the character at the Red Bull Theatre in 2016, Jonathan Cake's Coriolanus is something of an adolescent trapped in a warrior's body. He runs onstage rather like a football player taking the field, ready for action, yet there is an unmistakable sneer in his voice when speaking of the Roman rabble -- "the beast with many heads" -- on whose acclaim his post-military career depends. He also takes a dim view of those offering "praises sauced with lies." Urged to bare his war wounds for the delectation of the crowd, he announces -- sounding rather like a millennial --"I will not do't/Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth/And by my body's action teach my mind/A most inherent baseness." Yet no Coriolanus in my experience has been more lumbered by his mother, the terrifying Voluminia, her vaulting ambition rendered even more devouring than usual thanks to Kate Burton's fiery delivery. ("Anger's my meat," she says, and no actress ever enjoyed a more delicious feast.) The adolescent whine, accompanied by a pleading look, whenever Coriolanus says, "Mother!" tells all: He could conquer the globe yet not satisfy this demanding parent.

Sullivan's production has many striking moments: the victorious Coriolanus entering, stained in blood; exciting battle scenes staged by Steve Rankin; a startlingly homoerotic embrace between Coriolanus and Tullus Aufidius, his Volscian opposite number; and Voluminia, accompanied by Coriolanus' wife and child, prostrate on the ground, begging him not to sack the city of his birth. But the production's energy runs down about halfway through the second act, and the final rush of events -- including Coriolanus' eleventh-hour change of heart and its dire consequences -- unfold without much excitement. The reason for this, I think, has to do with Sullivan's central concept, which sets the action in a junkyard version of Rome at a dire moment in the apocalyptic future. Beowulf Boritt's set design, consisting of walls made of corrugated metal scraps, is imposing and flexible in suggesting different locations, but it reduces the play's stakes: If Rome is already in such a degraded state, Coriolanus' betrayal loses much of its impact. By depicting Rome in such a state of degradation, the production is, in a way, giving away the show. Furthermore, the muscular staging treats the play like an action drama, when it is -- for better or for worse -- rooted in political intrigue and the title character's tortured psychology.

Still, in addition to Cake and Burton, both of them offering their considerable best, there are fine contributions from Teagle F. Bougere as Menenius Agrippa, Roman senator and all-around voice of reason; Louis Cancelmi as a fierce and implacable Tullus Aufidius; Enid Graham and Jonathan Hadary, the sneakiest pair of intriguers ever as the tribunes who plot against Coriolanus; Max Gordon Moore as the leader of the easily manipulated crowd; and Tom Nelis as Cominius, Coriolanus' staunch friend.

Also, Japhy Weideman's lighting adds plenty of visual interest, especially some stunning backlighting effects focusing on the forest upstage of the Delacorte. If Kaye Voyce's costumes -- loose garments for the patricians, ragged clothing for the mob, and form-fitting soldiers' wear -- are generally unflattering, they are of a piece with the rest of the production. Jessica Paz's sound design is, as is always the case with her Delacorte assignments, notable for its crystal clarity.

Overall, I preferred Michael Sexton's Red Bull staging, which set the action in a political convention setting packed with double-dealers and rode the wave of the title character's fury to the bitter end. (Opening in November 2016, it's warning about populism struck a chilling chord, for reasons I surely need not explain.) Still, this is a rare chance to see a first-class staging of a play that, whatever its weaknesses, has something to say about our current political predicament.

Even more contemporary is Measure for Measure, a black comedy with a central situation that seems to predict the #MeToo movement: Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, flees his position, disguising himself as a friar and handing over his duties to Angelo, the strictest of judges. When the foolish young Claudio gets his lover, Juliet, with child, he is arrested and sentenced to death by Angelo, to whom mercy is a foreign concept. Isabella, a young postulant and Claudio's sister, throws herself on Angelo's mercy, begging for clemency; the heretofore priggish Angelo, suddenly inflamed with lust, offers to make a deal: If Isabella will sleep with him, Claudio can go free. If not, the young man has a date with the chopping block.

There's rather more to Measure for Measure, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from Janet Zarish's stripped-down production for The Acting Company, being presented in repertory with an adaptation of Richard Wright's novel Native Son. This is the Reader's Digest version, a ninety-minute summary that focuses on the main narrative line while severely reducing or eliminating the bawds, pimps, whores, and unrepentant criminals who form the play's substructure, becoming solely the story of a lady in distress, surrounded by manipulative men. Well, it's an approach: It benefits from a swift pace and a clear dramatic line, building to a final confrontation that satisfyingly strikes a blow at the Viennese patriarchy. It also scrubs the play of its considerable humor and tames its unruliness, not to its advantage. Most grievously, it misreads Shakespeare's intentions: The play is marked by a frank, scalding appraisal of the world's wicked ways and it makes an argument for moderation in both virtue and vice. Indeed, the virtuous characters are almost as single-minded as the libertines they scorn. Isabella, aided by the Duke, preserves her virginity, but only by agreeing to some mighty seamy shenanigans, not least of which is a duplicitous tryst with Angelo in which she is replaced by a confederate. The Duke, for his part, cooks up a con in which the dead body of a prisoner is passed off as the corpse of Claudio. And these are the forces of good!

Zarish's take on the play might work better with a more engaged cast, but everyone onstage seems to be in a rush to catch a train. This is especially true of Rebekah Brockman's surprisingly tough and opaque Isabella and Sam Lilja's Angelo, who is more middle-manager than sexual predator. On the plus side, Keshav Moodliar's Duke has a touch of authority and an urgent sense that lives and reputations are at risk. The rest of the cast gets the job done, without much inspiration.

In keeping with the general air of austerity, Neil Patel's gray-toned set, dominated by a jackknife staircase, works well enough, especially his use of tables and mics for the climax, which is staged like a Congressional hearing. Alan C. Edwards' lighting, Jessica Wegener Shay's contemporary costumes, and Fabian Obispo's original music sound design -- most notably the use of sound collages built out of news reports -- are all solid. The production ends with a feminist twist that will please many in the audience, but which feels tacked on, as it violates the sense of reconciliation that is key to all of Shakespeare's comedies. We seem to get Measure for Measure quite often these days; if you love this play, I'd hold out for the next revival. --David Barbour

(6 August 2019)

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