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'Coriolanus' review: The Bard's brutal, stirring tragedy

Nneka Okafor and Jonathan Cake star in "Coriolanus"

Nneka Okafor and Jonathan Cake star in "Coriolanus" in Central Park. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT "Coriolanus"

WHEN | WHERE Through Sunday, Delacorte Theater, Central Park

INFO Free; for information on obtaining tickets, go to www.publictheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Rare production of Shakespeare's brutal tragedy, set in the near future and timely right now.

With all the rubble (discarded tires, rusting oil drums) cluttering the stage at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, you half expect Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson to burst from behind the burned out car in full "Cats" regalia. But, no, we’re here for far darker fare, Shakespeare in the Park's staging of the Roman tragedy "Coriolanus."

The Shakespeare work, one of the last he wrote, isn’t seen all that often. The Public Theater last did the play at its annual free summer shindig 40 years ago and Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a film version in 2011. You can understand the reluctance to produce the piece, which lacks the compelling story and rich emotion of the Bard's more popular works.

Still, it’s timely and relevant, a bloody and brutal exploration of democracy run amok. Set by director Daniel Sullivan in a post-apocalyptic vision of Rome, it's an ecological horror story where climate change has led to starving masses. The citizens revolt, demanding the patricians offer relief, but they see no reliable way to get it. Their hopes are somehow linked to warrior Caius Martius, granted the honorary title Coriolanus after single-handedly defeating the pesky Volscian army. He follows his domineering mama Volumnia's entreaties to parlay his hero status into a political future. He's elected consul, but cannot hide his disdain for the people he governs (he calls them curs and rogues) and is quickly banished from Rome.

Jonathan Cake is formidable in the title role, aggressive and manipulating, if occasionally hitting the “Blade Runner” thug bit a little too hard. Kate Burton is wonderful as Volumnia, raging one moment, sobbing the next to show us where her kid learned the manipulation game. There are fine performances all around, with especially great work from Teagle F. Bougere as loyal adviser Menenius, Tom Nelis as the general Cominius and Louis Cancelmi as Aufidius, both friend and foe to Coriolanus. It all plays out on Beowulf Boritt's imposing corrugated metal set, with scruffy costumes by Kaye Boyce that look to be straight out of a thrift shop Dumpster.

It’s impossible to watch all this without drawing troubling parallels to current times, notably the not always honorable ways elected officials engage with their constituents. But in the end, this is as much about family as anything, especially the lengths to which many people will go to honor their parents. As someone says early on in the play, "He did it to please his mother."

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