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 'Coriolanus' stars on Shakespeare in the Park, NYC's heat wave and scene-stealing raccoons

Jonathan Cake, left, stars in Shakespeare's "Coriolanus," now

Jonathan Cake, left, stars in Shakespeare's "Coriolanus," now playing at Central Park's Delacorte Theatre. Teagle F. Bougere, right, and Biko Eisen-Martin, background, also feature in the Daniel Sullivan-directed production.  Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Mother Nature can be such a diva. She’s been giving some rather uninvited assistance to the Public Theater’s production of “Coriolanus” at Shakespeare in the Park since previews began mid-July.

It’s not entirely unwelcome, though — for a work set in a war-torn future maimed by climate change, the blistering heat and melodramatic skies have added an extra dimension to the tragedy about a military hero turned politician with a contempt for the people he is meant to lead. 

“I hope these words aren't going to come back to haunt me, but there's something that feels weirdly useful about the heat for this show,” says Jonathan Cake, who stars as Roman general Caius Marcius Coriolanus.

The British actor compares the atmosphere to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” “There's something about the pressure cooker,” he says, “the heat gives it this great sense of tension, of something that needs to be released. It makes it much more extreme to me. And it makes me understand much more why a man would shape his whole life around a code of honor, and a sense of his own integrity.”

The year is 2080 in director Daniel Sullivan's vision. “We're imagining the Earth as sort of cooked and that's created all these knock-on effects," Cake explains. Tribes fostered around violence and basic survival threaten the durability of a democracy already weakened by demagogues. 

As he battles Volscian rivals, his people and his own pride, Coriolanus also has to contend with his ruthless mother, Volumnia, played here by Kate Burton. This crucial relationship in the play shows how even a person of great power can be dreadfully handicapped by the nurturing faults of a parent. 

Those unfamiliar with the tragedy are in good company — rarely performed in NYC, this is the first time the lesser known of Shakespeare’s Roman plays has been seen at Shakespeare in the Park since 1979. On Broadway, it's only been performed once, in 1938. More recently on screen, Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a 2011 film adaptation.

“I mean, it's like doing a new play here, because it's so rarely done,” Cake says. “Essentially, we're introducing people to a new play, which is such an amazing thing to do with a big Shakespeare tragedy.” 

The character is no stranger to Cake, however — the 51-year-old performed the same role at London’s Globe Theatre in 2006.

So how do the two iconic stages compare?

“There's a very interesting thing that happens at both places, which is the sense of a real event being captured in a space that is sort of amongst the rest of the city," Cake says. "There's a sense that it's not really a real theater, which sounds odd, but it's a sense that it's sort of happening as a kind of agreed upon accident in the middle of the city." 

In Manhattan, helicopters whir overhead; in London the lights of St. Paul's Cathedral can be seen from across the Thames.

"You can feel the night air, when the breeze blows you can feel it on your skin in both places," Cake says. 

But the actor is still getting used to just how wild things are here. “Raccoons basically own that space, we're just sort of borrowing it from them," he admits. More than a few critters seem to be fans of “Coriolanus,” with multiple sightings of raccoons during recent performances. 

“I do not remember anything quite as wild during ‘Cymbeline,’” adds Kate Burton, who returns to the Delacorte for a second time, previously performing at Shakespeare in the Park in 2015. “It seems that there are a lot of young raccoons who are very comfortable being near and around people, so there have been a lot more interactions than I have ever experienced.”

It's a stage unlike any other, as exhilarating to the performers as it so often is to the audience. 

"The Delacorte merges into Central Park on all sides — Central Park has kind of grown around it, and there's something really crazy and sort of almost hallucinogenic about that at times," Cake says. 

"There's a sense that, you know, life could just pull through." 

Cue the raccoons. 

'Coriolanus' runs through Aug. 11 at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. For details on obtaining free tickets visit publictheater.org.

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