Hell Caesar: Titus Andronicus
NY Theater Review JK Clarke
In the modern era, William Shakespeare’s gory revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus, was scarcely known (except among Shakespeare aficionados) to most audiences until acclaimed director Julie Taymor decided to make a film of it; and then, further, when an indie-punk band in New Jersey (presumably inspired by the film) made it big. Prior to this unexpected recognition Titus was seldom performed, never read, and considered far too violent for most audiences. As one of his earliest works, it is considerably less complex and layered than Shakespeare’s better-known plays. However, it has emerged recently as a relatively popular selection from the canon, possibly because it is a very direct, brusque story: upon returning home from the wars, Titus condemns to death—as a ritual sacrifice—the son of the vanquished Tamora, Queen of the Goths, despite her anguished pleas for his life. Tamora vows, and executes, revenge against Titus and his children in the most horrid of ways (rape, decapitation, hands chopped off . . . you name it). The aggrieved and enraged Titus then, in turn, takes a far more gruesome revenge on Tamora and her children. This could have gone on and on but in the end everyone dies. Très Hollywood.
Titus Andronicus, oddly, is well-suited for a small community Shakespeare group such as the always adventurous and daring Frog and Peach Theatre Company who are presenting this comedy of terrors under the direction of the dynamic Lynnea Benson, until November 2. In mounting Titus, Frog and Peach are presenting their second obscure Shakespeare play in a row—the last being the elusive King John—for which they must be commended. Producing these nuggets is a win for everyone: actors who would never otherwise have the opportunity to play the roles; and, both casual and serious Shakespeare fans who, even in New York, rarely have a chance to see these plays.
This production is an easy one to follow as, in addition to the straightforward story, it is peppered with well-choreographed fights and battles (Marcus Watson); and, Nina Vartanian’s fine, period-suggestive costumes easily differentiate the two warring sides. [Add to these kudos a special tip of the hat to the (unnamed) crafty music director whose pre-, post- and intermission songs (mostly 1960s and 70s rock) make sly references to themes of the play (one can’t help chuckle at the exit song of Patti Smith singing, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”)]
While the acting is somewhat uneven, there were strong performances by the always entertaining Eric Doss as Saturninus and Vivien Landau as Marta Andronicus, sister to Titus. Perhaps the only acting shortcoming was in the seemingly subdued emotions of certain characters upon experiencing or witnessing bloody atrocities. As Marta exclaims at a seemingly sedate and Job-like Titus (Greg Mullavey), “Now is the time to storm, why art thou still!?” Could it be that Titus is a military hero who has seen so much that he is nonplussed by the rape and mutilation of his own daughter? It hardly seems likely. Only Tamora (a perfectly cast Amy Frances Quint as the vengeful Goth Queen) displays the appropriate level of anguish when confronted by the brutal death of one son. Later, she recoils convincingly in disgust and abject shock when she discovers she has been eating a pie made of her own sons (yes, really).
Director Benson’s tendency to break the fourth wall and have her actors address the audience directly during long speeches, while potentially distracting in other productions, works quite well in Titus. In Roman plays such as this one, the audience is part of a public that is being addressed by the characters (usually in a public venue such as the Forum). As such, we feel, appropriately, that we are part of the production. However, had Ms. Benson really wanted to break the fourth wall, perhaps she should have served the audience some of that delicious pie!
Titus Andronicus. Through November 2 at The West End Theatre (263 W 86th Street at Broadway, 2nd Floor). www.frogandpeachtheatre.org
Photos: Lee Wexler