How important is it for a stage production of “Titus Andronicus” to be gory?
Descriptions of recent high-profile productions in England of Shakespeare’s arguably most violent play — at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Globe Theatre — make it sound as if explicit brutality is the expected theatrical order of the day. These productions offered severed hands served up on silver dishes and prisoners hung upside-down with throats slit, the dripping blood collected in bowls. If you stage “Titus” without at least a few of your patrons fainting, it seems, you aren’t doing your job.
His approach to the gruesomeness of the storyline, including the infamous moment in which the ground-up bodies of two brothers are baked into a pie and then served to their mother and stepfather, is minimalist. He mostly asks the audience to imagine the violence rather than try to depict it in an authentic fashion. Other than one rather awkward stab at realism involving the title character’s amputated hand (another of the play’s notorious bits), the violence in this production is almost dreamy in nature, like something out of some stylized, Kabuki-theater experience. The bloodshed happens not with a spurt and a grunt but with a sigh.
I have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of this approach. On one hand, the temperature of the play is lowered to a simmer instead of a boil, and in doing so, I found myself much more wrapped up in the psychology of the characters rather than the atrocities committed upon their flesh. Titus (played with a fierce, raw weariness by Jay Parks), the conquering general who turns down the ultimate crown — emperor of Rome — only to find himself and his family royally screwed, becomes more than simply a literary symbol for revenge. In this more reflective (if still nauseating) world of vengeance he inhabits, I felt that I was allowed to get a little closer to Titus instead of keeping my distance because of spraying blood.
On the other hand, the production feels too introspective to me at times. I’m fine with stylized violence, but such moments have to be accompanied by psychological intensity. The direction and creative design just didn’t do that for me, at least in certain crucial parts.
Take, for example, the beginning scenes, when Titus is returning to Rome, victorious over the heathen Goths. He brings with him the conquered Goth queen, Tamora (a feisty and rousing Heather Gibeson), in chains, and announces that he will have her eldest son executed. (This sets in motion the chain of revenge and retribution that continues throughout the play.) In these scenes, too, we witness Titus turn down the chance to be emperor. Two feuding brothers, Saturninus (played in an example of gender-blind casting by Tania Haigounian) and Bassianus (Chamang Yang) have been battling for the crown. Titus throws his lot in with Saturninus.
The new emperor announces his intention to marry Titus’ daughter, Lavinia (Kenia Morales, in a fine and melancholy performance), presumably out of payback for her father’s loyalty. But it turns out that Lavinia is already betrothed to Bassinius, and Roman law says that arrangement can’t be broken. The irritated emperor then says he’s going to marry Tamara — a shocker — and Titus finds himself on the outs.
All of this is crucial, foundational stuff for the narrative, yet I didn’t truly make all the connections until after I saw the show and read a detailed synopsis. I’m not a scholar of “Titus” and have never seen it on stage, so I’m not sure how much of this set-up was cut in terms of text and secondary characters, but I do know as an audience member that the opening scenes felt particularly static and truncated. Taber stages much of the action as a tableau of sorts, with the actors striking lengthy poses scattered about the stage facing the audience. I got no sense of a Rome nearly incendiary with the chance of civil war, no handle on the strange political blunder that Titus makes in terms of his daughter’s marriage, no feel for a once-great empire starting to crumble into moral decay.
Things turn even more vicious as the play progresses, and there are some fine moments in this production that capture that sense of menace and foreboding. Joshua Taber and Daniel Serrano, as Tamora’s rough and callous sons, deliver sheer ruthlessness as they carry out the horrific task (at their mother’s direction, no less) of raping and mutilating Titus’ daughter. (Joshua Taber, with his maniacal grin, is downright creepy). Jessica Reedy is a strong presence as Marcus, brother to Titus, who would seem a beacon for civilized behavior but bows to the inevitable as her extended family is walloped by aggression. I wanted to see more of that strength and resoluteness in Rene Anthony Ponce’s Lucius, eldest son of Titus.
Harrison Mills, as the cold-blooded Aaron — the lover of the Goth queen and as a Moor, or black man, the focus of one of Shakespeare’s most racially problematic storylines in all his works — gives a performance that often seems out of place with the more minimalist tone of the rest of the production. When Mills comes out on stage in the first scene to strike his place in the tableau, he radiates not introspection but sheer lunacy. This started off promisingly enough. But Mills pushes it too far at times. He can be just a little too broad in his portrayal, almost nearing caricature, such as when he’s encouraging the rape of Lavinia.
Parks in the title role never really grabbed me until near the end of the show. I wanted to see more drive and urgency from him, a bigger window into his descent into madness, but this was perhaps a directorial choice. Still, I got a shiver down my spine in his closing moments.
Greg Taber’s modern and formal costumes are effective in their simplicity and soberness, and Joshua Taber’s eclectic musical score (which is reprinted in the program), consisting of tunes from such artists as Tool and Leonard Cohen, gives a contemporary edge to the proceedings. The show’s biggest wobble in terms of the creative team on opening night was Broderic Beard’s lighting design, which strives for a murky dimness (perhaps in lieu of bright red blood) but too often leaves actors in complete darkness. (A little shadow can go a long way.) Instead of noirish, the lights too often came across as clunky.
Still, I understand the desire of this “Titus” to get dark and shadowy on us. It’s a way to diminish the fixation on the blood and gore. It makes the focus on revenge more intellectual and less visceral. “Titus Andronicus” could simply be a horror show, and instead, this production is a lot more thoughtful than that. Consider: If memories could be simply wiped clean for just one generation, think of all the blood feuds, territorial disputes, conflicts between religions and deeply ingrained nastiness that could be simply eliminated from this world, even conflicts that have lasted hundreds of years.
Shakespeare knew that would never happen. Revenge is part of the human condition. And that, perhaps, is the most grisly thing of all.
“Titus Andronicus” continues 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Aug. 26, Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage, Woodward Park. General admission is free; $10 reserved tickets in the first two rows are available online. $5 per car park entry fee applies.
A farewell ‘Titus Andronicus’: Woodward Shakespeare Festival tackles the bloody play about revenge in director Greg Taber’s last show as executive producer
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