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Shakespeare Theatre’s ‘Titus Andronicus’ (1st review)BY: Robert Zaller 04.28.2012
Titus Andronicus is early Shakespeare, more gore than glory, but still well worth seeing in Aaron Cromie’s canny and inventive staging.
Titus Andronicus. By William Shakespeare; Aaron Cromie directed. Through May 19, 2012 (alternating with Twelfth Night) at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St. (215) 496-8001 or www.phillyshakespeare.org.
The Bard as RevengerROBERT ZALLER
Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare’s problematic (as opposed to “problem”) plays. It’s an early work, steeped in the blood and gore of the Revenger tragedy style, and its authorship, despite its inclusion in the Folio and Quarto editions as Shakespeare’s own, is at least partly contested.
In its final form Titus is nearly contemporary with Richard III and Romeo and Juliet, indisputably great works of the Shakespeare canon; and although it’s mostly quite competent and sometimes a good bit more, it contains its share of awkward and/or purple passages— Queen Tamora’s speech in Act II, Scene III, for example— that are hard to square with Shakespeare even as juvenilia. Of course, silent collaborators and script doctors were common in the Elizabethan theater, so we may well be dealing with a composite text.
However one reads it, though, Titus Andronicus is certainly a potboiler designed to appeal to the cruder tastes of its time, suitably tricked out in pseudo-classical dress. The Elizabethans did love a bloodfest, and this play more than delivers on that score.
The plot is simply summarized. Titus Andronicus, returning victorious from war against barbarian tribes, is hailed as emperor by the Roman populace but gives the crown instead to the blood heir, Saturninus. Saturninus wishes to cement the alliance by making Titus’s daughter Lavinia empress, but she is claimed by his brother, Bassanius.
Saturninus marries instead the captive Goth queen, Tamora, who avenges herself for the death of her son by slaying two of Titus’s remaining sons along with Bassanius, and amputating Lavinia’s hands and tongue after subjecting her to rape. Titus, who has sacrificed one of his own hands in a vain attempt to save his sons, vows revenge, and takes it in kind, only to be slain in turn.
A sub-plot involves Tamora’s Moorish lover, Aaron, who represents villainy for its own sake (in good Revenger fashion) but meets his own end when he tries to protect his child by Tamora, whom Tamora wants killed.
Shakespeare would take elements of the Revenge tradition into his mature tragedies: Avenging a family member is the theme of Hamlet; passion and jealousy of Othello; murderous ambition of Macbeth. Aaron’s character contains elements of Iago, and Titus Andronicus of Lear.
But it’s hard to play Titus Andronicus straightforwardly; the Grand Guignol verges on the comical for a modern audience, and even in the 1590s it must have seemed a genre parody, the way post-John Ford Westerns are for us.
Another problem, for the Shakespeare Theatre’s limited space and resources, is the cast size. Alan Hughes, the editor of the play’s Cambridge edition, estimates it at 14 with doubling; but here, seven performers are used onstage, with puppets designed by director Aaron Cromie filling in for Roman spectators and scenes played in dumb show.
Cromie makes a virtue of necessity, using stick figures for the gruesome scene of Lavinia’s rape and her brothers’ entrapment in a pit, as in Greek Karaghiozis theater, with two-dimensional outlines projected against a white screen. His device gets the staging done without the awkwardness of sinking actual performers into trap doors, while the abstract effect takes some of the edge off a scene that would be over the top even by modern slasher standards.
Lavinia is played by actress Lesley Berkowitz, but the character is represented after her mutilation by a “bloodied” puppet wielded by Berkowitz in Japanese Bunraku fashion. This method, too, works to effect, enabling Berkowitz to convey the mute pathos of her character through facial expression alone, while the disfigured puppet represents the atrocity visited on her. The audience adapts quickly enough to this convention, and it’s an inspired choice, for Bunraku conveys the emotions of silence as does no other theatrical tradition.
Mask of anger
The other performers are called on to present a range of effects between the naturalistic and the stylized. Titus, as I said, has a touch of Lear in him; his temper— quick and irrational like Lear’s— is shown early, when he kills a son who has attempted to bar his way, and he has a mad scene to play as well.
On the other hand, Titus is— again, like Lear— a figure of dignity and even majesty, and he dominates the stage. Rob Kahn offers an impressive realization of Titus, abetted (like the other actors) by a whiteface makeup that freezes the lines of his face in place in a mask of anger and woe.
Jered McLenigan’s Saturninus, the double-dealing emperor, is a properly fey and decadent foil to Titus’s outraged masculinity, and the other performers shift nimbly through their multiple roles. The full-figured Caroline Crocker exudes the brazen sexuality of Tamora, while retaining the steely resolve of a survivor.
I had a little trouble with Davon Williams’s accent as Aaron; and though Williams brought out Aaron’s comedic effect zestfully enough, the character’s bitter edge was missing. Aaron is the first of Shakespeare’s outsider figures, the bitter observer of a society he can never truly join.
The Revenger villain is the archetype of these figures, but Shakespeare would develop this stock character, as he did everything else he touched, far beyond the original mold. As Aaron goes to meet his (highly unpleasant) fate in the play’s last scene, he strikes the unrepentant pose of Elizabethan villainy, but with a touch that hints at Iago’s farewell:
“Ah, why should wrath be mute and fury dumb?
That’s the way a bad guy ought to go.♦
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