Review: Coriolanus Would Make a Better President Than Trump or Biden

Hudson Classical Theater Company stages Shakespeare’s republican tragedy under a Roman monument.

Roxann Kraemer, Cindy Xu, Benjamin Farmer, and Fever Hawk Browne appear in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by Nicholas Martin-Smith and Joseph Hamel, for Hudson Classical Theater Company in Riverside Park.
(© Susane Lee)

The architects of the United States have long endeavored to style our republic after Rome. We can see their efforts in the gleaming white marble of the Capitol, the stately columns standing sentry outside the Supreme Court — and, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the small cylindrical temple that was erected 122 years ago in Riverside Park to honor the soldiers and sailors fallen in defense of the Union. This appropriation of ancient legitimacy ominously invokes a violent, fratricidal history, which Hudson Classical Theater Company is happy to remind us of in its bracing and bloody staging of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, now playing on the north patio of that very monument.

Patrician general Caius Martius (Benjamin Farmer) is openly contemptuous of the rabble, dismissing their plebian hunger as the bellyaching of a parasitic class. He earns his keep by defending the homeland and expanding Rome’s dominion. When he defeats the Volscians at Corioli, he is given the agnomen “Coriolanus.” A consulship seems to be in his future, but first he will have to flaunt his war wounds before the very same riffraff he despises. “…’twas never my desire yet to trouble the poor with begging,” says the proud aristocrat, who believes he has already earned his position as a leader of men. Scheming Tribunes (read: career politicians) Brutus (David Palmer Brown) and Sicinius (Annette Fox) are happy to disabuse him of this delusion.

Farmer cuts a striking figure in the title role, sporting a severe glower and shaved head — not, I suspect, out of allegiance to any political ideology but to prevent his opponents in combat having something to grab onto. Fight directors Jared Kirby, Tony Mita, and Olivia Ball have staged thrillingly panoramic battle scenes, but none are as heart-pounding as those featuring our title character. I gasped as Farmer leapt over the wall of the monument and charged a group of Volscians, his face doused in blood. In his extended tussle with Volscian leader Aufidius (a dashing Joshua Gutierrez) we can feel their mutual rage morphing into begrudging respect — one alpha male to another.

Coriolanus (Benjamin Farmer) battles with Aufidius (Joshua Gutierrez) as a Volscian soldier (J. Robert Coppolla) looks on in Hudson Classical Theater Company’s production of Coriolanus.
(© Susane Lee)

He wields the verse as effectively as his fists, particularly in the third act when he unleashes his invective, warning that too much deference to popular opinion will eventually “Break ope the locks o’ th’ Senate and bring in / The crows to peck the eagles.” Convincing and charismatic, this is a Coriolanus that, in a different age, would have made a fortune as a trad bro podcaster.

Unfortunately, Farmer’s excellence only underlines the weakness of the would-be consul’s opposition. Brown and Fox are halting and unsteady voices of the people, stumbling over their lines in a manner that is positively Bidenesque. Coriolanus is clearly an asshole, but it’s hard to believe that any honest observer could walk away from the market thinking that Brutus and Sicinius won that debate. That makes the ensuing events (Coriolanus is banished from Rome and becomes a turncoat) even more implausible.

The production is aided by strong supporting performances from Bruce Barton as Menenius (the silver-tongued patrician trying to play ringmaster to this circus) and Roxann Kraemer as our protagonist’s ambitious mother Volumnia, who reminded me of Saddam Hussein’s proclamation, following the deaths of his sons, that if he had 100 more, he would wish them all similar martyrdom.

Coriolanus (Benjamin Farmer) confronts an army of Volscians in Hudson Classical Theater Company’s production of Coriolanus in Riverside Park.
(© Susane Lee)

Co-directors Nicholas Martin-Smith and Joseph Hamel deliver a smart cut and efficient staging that takes full advantage of their found venue and all its eccentricities. Usually a nuisance, each passing Blade helicopter over the Hudson serves as a force multiplier in their cinematic vision of modern warfare. Camouflage abounds, but costume designer Tanuka Ghosh shrewdly understands the value of a well-placed accessory: a dangling pendant for Volumnia, a Keffiyah for Aufidius. It all comes together to tell the story of the theater of power, in which a youthful face and a stirring turn of phrase can win or lose an empire.

Of course, rhetoric isn’t all that matters. Mediocrity regularly triumphs over merit in a democracy, and resentment is the weapon of choice. The plebs and Tribunes have plenty of reason to resent Coriolanus and his ilk, but it’s hard to accept their triumph when he is holding all the cards — and more importantly, the guns.


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Closed: July 21, 2024