by: JK Clarke
Titus Andronicus is not one of Shakespeare’s plays particularly noted for its poetic language. Nor does it have the twists and contours of his more complex tragedies. Rather, Titus is to traditional Shakespeare what a Hollywood blockbuster is to an arthouse film: heavy on the action with less emphasis on character development and dialog. In short, it is a bloody and remarkably violent revenge tragedy. Hence, it is a play that relies primarily on theatrics. A company must contrive to convey its heavy message (that an “eye-for-an-eye” ethos will inevitably become toxic and self-destructive) in a manner as quickly-paced and visually entertaining as possible. And it’s in this vein that the very worthy New York Shakespeare Exchange delivers the goods in their very excellent production of Titus Andronicus, playing at HERE through the remainder of the week.
In this production, director (and adapter) Ross Williams sets the play as a sort of nightmare inside a depression-era circus tent, opening with a pantomimed reverie of a depressed Pierrot-esque clown (Kerry Kastin) in which creatures creep out of the scenery and proceed to slaughter one another in a game of tag with daggers. It’s a fairly on-the-nose foreshadowing of the butchery to come. Great Roman General, Titus Andronicus (Brendan Averett) returns from the Goth Wars with their captives, the Goth Queen, Tamora (an intense Gretchen Egolf) and her sons. When Titus’s sons demand the brutal execution of one of her sons as revenge for their losses in the wars, he allows it, despite her heart-rending pleas that he be spared. Titus’s lack of forgiveness (a Christian value, lest the Elizabethan audience forget that the Romans in question are lowly pagans) leads to cascading acts of revenge that leave just about everyone in the play dead, though not before they are raped, maimed or surreptitiously fed to their relatives at a banquet. Yes, it’s that gory.
Jason Lajka’s set design, coupled with Drew Florida’s lighting, drive home the carnival and circus tent motif, with a dressing room adjacent to the stage on one side suggesting the gross-theatricality of this story. And on the other side is a grain chute, that is triggered to noisily release corn into a metal tub upon each murder, simulating the spilling of blood, almost as in a slaughter house. In the first half of the play it’s the only suggestion of blood, suggesting the banality and insignificance of death to the warring types who grace the stage. Once Titus becomes directly impacted by the mayhem we finally see real blood, as it becomes real for him. It’s an effective device: instead of becoming numbed by the violence, we begin to see it in greater detail as it becomes more personal, and it is more painful for us to witness as it is for Titus Andronicus to endure.
Character presentation is also significant in this production, as signified by the panto personage of the clown, so Elivia Bovenzi’s costume design in which villains are exaggerated (Tamora’s vile Goth sons are wild creatures wearing animals pelts and with racoonish, devious eyes) make it easy to distinguish the bad from the really bad. All is aided by terrific acting from Averett as Titus; Kate Lydic as Titus’s poor daughter Lavinia (one of the play’s few innocents and who ends up enduring the most extreme violence); Warren Jackson as an especially dynamic and somehow sympathetically evil Aaron, the Moor; and there’s also Vince Gatton in a fine turn as newly crowned Emperor, Saturninus.
Titus Andronicus, as Shakespeare wrote it, has the potential to be dry yet monotonously violent. But, when handled so passionately and with a deeper understanding of its broader message, it becomes an entertaining and fascinating play, a feat which the Shakespeare Exchange has pulled off with aplomb. It’s a shame the production has such a short run, as this is a great opportunity to see a play seldom produced so well.
Titus Andronicus. Through February 8 at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue @Spring Street). www.here.org
*Photos: Kalle Westerling