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Titus' Overkill

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Bard's Gory Mess Drowns Out Shakespeare Theatre's Finesse

Tf it wasn’t staged by one of the best professional theaters in the country, “Titus Andronicus,” currently at the Shakespeare Theatre, might pass for a sensationalist B-rated thriller that belongs in the Halloween section of your corner video store.

It is no wonder this play is mostly unknown. It’s not that today’s public cannot handle the over-the-top goriness—rather it’s because the script lacks believability. Even for audiences who are accustomed to Shakespeare’s flair for pathos and metaphor, it is difficult not to interpret the text’s flippant treatment of disembodied limbs, cannibalism, rape and pillaging as mere sensationalistic fodder.

“Titus” was, after all, one of the Bard’s first writing attempts, and some critics doubt if he even wrote what has been dubbed a “barbarity of the spectacles.”

The good news is that this production works hard to camouflage the script’s amateur nature with a slick and modernized set, eye-catching costumes, superb acting and clever direction. The result is a valiant attempt to raise an arguably unsophisticated text to the level expected from the acclaimed author and this respected theater company.

In its defense, “Titus” is the archetypical “revenge play” that was all the rage in England in the 1580s, according to Denise Albanese, associate professor of English and cultural studies at George Mason University. Its no-apology gruesomeness fed the citizens’ lust for barbarism in their own lives, such as public mutilations of heretics and bloodshed as sport. In fact, “Titus” was Shakespeare’s most popular play during his lifetime.

Given Shakespeare’s subsequent genius, one has to wonder if “Titus” resulted from the Bard’s inexperience or his desire to capitalize on his audience’s passion for pain to jumpstart his career. Either way, after its initial popularity, theaters have viewed the play as a risky endeavor that has just recently made its way back into the repertoire, said Albanese.

“A director has to be mad to take on this play,” jested director Gale Edwards, who, after waiting 25 years to direct “Titus,” jumped at the chance when it was offered by Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn.

Edwards, a veteran director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, admits it is challenging to make the play believable to a modern-day audience, but she added that its message—put simply, vengeance doesn’t pay—is universal and runs deep.

“Is the play a slasher movie? I don’t think it is,” she said. “We didn’t set out to horrify people. The play is not a celebration of violence. It is about the repercussions of violence, not about the violence itself.” Edwards compared the escalating cycle of vengeance—i.e., “You kill my daughter, I kill your daughter, your wife, and burn your house down”—to the rampant and meaningless violence of today’s world.

“We tend to divorce ourselves from this level of violence, but I don’t think we’ve moved on that much,” she said. “Our tendency for violence is printed on our DNA. Punishment and retribution are passed on for so long that we don’t remember its original source,” she said, citing the Iraq war as an obvious example.

To reinforce these parallels, Edwards set out to modernize the production. The characters use microphones, give speeches to canned clapping, wear leather punk suits, and videotape sex scenes on a plush, heart-shape divan. The results are provoking, but in the end, unfortunately this treatment seems to make light of the atrocities, making it easier for the audience to disengage emotionally.

Although most of Shakespeare’s plays make up for their lack of subtlety with witty and philosophical dialogue, the savagery in “Titus” is not tempered with the Bard’s signature soliloquies or double entendres. There are few monologues, and no character reveals regret or remorse, as they do in his later plays.

In addition, the characters’ motives for revenge are one-dimensional. Overstatement is no stranger to these characters who embody a living hell, and it is at times like these when an actor’s craft is truly tested.

Ironically, it is Colleen Delany, as Titus’s only daughter, whose tragedies are the most credible, despite being the most horrific. Delany’s wispy vulnerability and eerily translucent white skin send chills through the audience. Her presence and plight come closest to representing the “dismemberment of a society” that Edwards said was the metaphor for “Titus.”

Meanwhile, Peter Macon, as Aaron, the Moor—both persecutor and victim—evokes forcefulness with his acting choices and movement. Although his underlying motives are less obvious than the other characters’, he has the most monologues and speaks directly to the audience.

Perhaps dramatic simplicity is most appropriately used by Peter England’s minimalist set. His sinister world of blacks, shiny surfaces and angularities is an appropriate backdrop for the “Titus” world of cold hearts and inability to forgive. Fluorescent green poles represent a forest, while vibrant red curtains are the bloodshed. And in every scene, a giant pair of glaring eyes stares menacingly at the audience from the rafters, daring all spectators to make the fantastical plot come alive.

Titus Andronicus through May 20 Shakespeare Theatre 450 7th St., NW Tickets are to .25 For more information, please call (202) 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

About the Author

Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999