Theater review: Titus Andronicus by Independent Shakespeare Company (spoiler-free)

Last night, Lisa and I went down to Los Angeles’ Griffith Park to see Independent Shakespeare Company’s free performance of Titus Andronicus.

For those who have followed this Project, you know how much I love what Indy Shakes does. I dig their diversity and inclusion, in terms of casting, staffing, use of language, and audience outreach. They are pretty much the antithesis of what I hate: Museum Shakespeare… their playfulness with the text–unafraid to make comic and topical references to the crowd–in addition to their use of direct address to, and from within, the audience, make for a wonderful experience that brings 400 year-old texts alive.

And those who know me know that I love this play. I think it’s the work of a brilliant young playwright doing his damnedness to make his audience notice him. And I just find the thing fascinating–thus my use of it in my current Masters thesis…and someday I want to direct the damn beast.

Some might then assume that this would make a positive review of this a fait accompli … a done deal. But with expectations so high, and such investment so personal, the opposite could be a risk.

I didn’t just like this show. I loved it. And more importantly, I was moved both emotionally and intellectually by it. What follows will be a two-part review: first, I’ll give you a pretty spoiler-free review and some reasons to see this production. Then tomorrow I’ll dive deep and get into-the-weeds to explain why I think this may very well be the best production I’ve see by Indy Shakes.

First, Titus is a weird play. Hyperviolent. Deeply conflicted in matters of “other”-ness, in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, and gender. Bizarrely comic. It’s what some consider to be a mess–one that the true Bardolator out there will still argue couldn’t possibly be the work of our great and renowned and classy Will Shakespeare. So how to do present Titus, this crazy-quilt of tones, themes, and characters, in a clear and coherent manner?

Director Melissa Chalsma doesn’t try to impose such clarity. She lets the play breathe, and grow, and mutate on its own. This is a brave but risky choice. This could turn into a mess, a goopy uncooked unfinished pie, so to speak. But here it reaps benefits. She allows for different styles of performance by different characters (there’s a choice that I wouldn’t personally have made–but it’s supported textually and it works here…I’ll get to that in the spoiler-ific section later). It even applies to different performance styles within the same character, David Melville’s titular Titus.

I’ve seen Melville play many characters in the past, but none–not his Iago, Richard III, Duke Vincentio, nor Benedick (while all being fully rounded portrayals)–reach the tonal and stylistic complexities of this Titus. For those who have seen Melville onstage, one can find a throughline through many of his performances, a looseness, an almost too-casual–and at times, bordering on enderaringly goofy–relaxedness (it’s what makes his villains [and last month’s Bottom] just so much damned fun to watch). And he brings that to the opening scene of Titus. I wasn’t sure about the choice, frankly. This is a serious time in Rome, and his almost-too-relaxed smilingly asking the audience about whether he should take the crown seemed a bit much. But I got it: this is a man, who after the loss of so many sons, after a final victory over the Goths, after a return to his beloved Rome and his more beloved only daughter, IS relaxed…relaxed but also driven by his own concept of Roman tradition that then informs the decisions he makes that then turn the play in the tragic directions it takes. So when the chickens born of those decisions come home to roost, his shift of tone is brutal. His pleas for the lives of his sons directed at tribunes who are no longer there are heartbreaking. And they wouldn’t be as brutalizing for the audience if we hadn’t seen that earlier casualness. And that break in tone then sets the stage for his emotionally unmoored performance in the second half of the play. Brilliant.

There really isn’t a single poor performance, but there are two that demand callouts for their excellence. Katie Powers-Faulk–a winning Hermia from last month’s Midsummer–gives Lavinia a fully realized emotional arsenal–hopeful, loving, fearful, spiteful, desperate, and finally broken. Her characterization–silenced by the narrative in the second half of the play–is a marvel of physical communication. On the other end of the verbality spectrum (yeah, I know–not a word) is Evan Lewis Smith’s Aaron. A precursor to Shakespeare’s later verbal villains–Richard III and (early Othello-) Iago–this is a man who loves sharing his villainy to the audience and the world…even when he’d be better off just shutting up. And Smith seems to be loving every morsel of dialogue. Just wonderful.

[a note on tech: in the past, Indy Shakes’ audio has been a little shaky. Last night, however, and I’m not sure if it was where we were sitting, fewer audience bodies soaking up sound waves, or changes in the mechanisms, but there seemed to be a clear delineation between the amplification on stage (now: with clarity!) and the lack of amplification off-stage… and the modulation between the two was masterfully controlled by Smith… anyway, back to the review]

Chalsma makes one gender-switch in the casting that was small, but brilliant: the young son of Lucius–Shakespeare in a moment of lack of effort calls him “Young Lucius”–here becomes young Lucia. This allows Chalsma to make some very interesting statements about gender, roles, violence, and pity. It makes the young character’s interaction with the wounded Lavinia take on a new level of meaning, and it gives Chalsma the chance to create a play-ending tableau that is simultaneously beautiful, haunting, sad, and hopeful.

The hyperviolence of the play makes it a tough sell, and Chalsma does her best to ease the audience into it. The first death is (as it is in the text) off stage. The second is bloodless, but then the blood begins, first with trickles and then the first half-ending torrent and the bloodbath of the final moments of the play. And when the very final piece of violence (in that multi-incident bloodbath) takes place, it is brutal, but we don’t see the blood involved… and the effect is very, very interesting… the repetitive brutality of the act becomes cathartic, but its bloodless nature takes us back to the beginning. Nicely done.

So yes, this is a violent play. The “parental advisory” is no joke. And the play isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of meat, er, tea. There was a noticeable percentage who left at intermission. Their loss.

This is an excellent production of a not oft-produced play. If you like Shakespeare (or, hell, even if you don’t but you incline toward the more disturbing of human emotions), you really need to see this play.

Titus Andronicus runs at least three times a week (running in rep with Midsummer) through September 1.

Like I said, this is excellent… but there’s more. In tomorrow’s entry, I’ll dive deep and spoiler-y to explain why this may be the best the play I’ve seen them do.

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