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

All right. Yesterday, I ran a review for Titus Andronicus by Independent Shakespeare Company, currently running in repertory with A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Griffith Park (for freakin’ free, people!).

I urged people to see it, and I provided some spoiler-free rationale why. Today, I want to discuss some of the aspects of the show that make it for me one of the best I’ve seen from the folks at Indy Shakes. So this is your last warning if you don’t want aspects of this production to be spoiled…

OK, this is going to be a bit scattershot (I originally had planned that this would be part of yesterday’s review… a kind of jumbo econo-sized piece, but I had other things to do, so I made the executive choice of putting it off. This is why, people, you don’t put things off… anywhooo).

The opening scene of Titus can be a bit confusing, with the political conflict between the two brothers. Director Melissa Chalsma came up with a pretty interesting way to reduce the confusion. Before the show, an actor came out on stage to bang a drum (literally) and give pre-show announcements, punctuating each announcement with a couple of beats on the big marching band bass drum. You know the kind of stuff: welcome to the festival, rules for the park, etc.. Then he welcomed us to Rome, where the reigning Caesar had just died. By this point, the actors playing Saturninus and Bassianus had come out to stand within the front of the audience to either side of the stage, glad-handing the audience members and interacting with them. The welcomer then introduced the two men running for Emperor, and had the crowd on that actor’s side of the audience cheer him, but then introducing the concept that there was also a contingent of the populace who wants the great military leader Titus to take the throne, getting the center of the audience to chant Titus’ name. Then Saturninus kicked into his opening speech, and the play was on. It was a good way to give exposition, and to get the crowd involved. A cheat? Sure, but a damned effective one (especially given the relative obscurity of the play).

Now yesterday I talked a little about the different and at times conflicting acting styles of the various characters, and I mentioned that there was one performance that had been directed in a manner that I’m not sure I would have done, but that it worked well. The performance in question was that of Sabra Williams as Tamora Queen of Goths. Hyper-dramatized with bordering on melodramatic gesturing, I was first put off by the performance. But as the opening scene progressed, I saw the method beyond the madness. Tamor is a FOREIGN queen. Her communication style should be different, and it should be different VISUALLY. But the masterstroke is that Tamora’s entire time in Rome following the sacrifice–ordered by Titus–of her son can be seen as a kind of performance, a dissembling of feeling while she finds a time to “massacre them all.” And of course, her penultimate appearance is literally a performance, playing the role of “Revenge” to (what she hopes is) a distract and insane Titus. Why is this important? Well, it makes her first speech in the play, her pleading with Titus to spare her son, the real her. To know look back on that speech–the most rhetorically perfect and emotionally/logically sound argument in the play–all the more powerful.

Before I leave the subject of Tamora, let me mention something on costuming (I know, not my usual purview). Here, the choices are interestingly symbolic. Tamora wears black throughout the piece. Young Lucia wears white. The other Roman woman (a servant) also wears white. Now, one might figure that Lavinia would wear white as well–as befits her chastity and her (female) relation to young Lucia, as well as her Romanity (yeah, not a word). But she doesn’t. At the beginning, it’s more of an off-white, bordering on salmon or a dull pink, and after her rape and mutilation she wears only gray. What does this mean? It’s an interesting question. I would say that Tamora’s coloring choice is blatantly symbolic of her foreign-ness and evil, as is young Lucia’s. The more (but still subtly colorful) choice for Lavinia denotes her ripe sexuality and fertility, one that is symbolically (and based on Roman/Elizabethan tradition) destroyed in her rape. Of course, there’s also the nurse who wears green. What is that choice all about? I would argue that it has to set her apart as well, since she is a Goth (she speaks of “our” queen), but she’s certainly not evil, she’s (or at least will be) an innocent victim of Aaron’s.

Chalsma does a great thing with the second half opening. Most productions run the two Andronicus home scenes (the dinner/fly-killing sequence and the scene in which Lavinia reveals her attackers) together, as they appear in the text. Not here: between the two sequences, Chalsma gives us a wordless scene in Rome, where we see the emperor and his bride, visibly pregnant, strolling with the two sons, who accost and sexually harrass/grope a young woman. Brilliant. Not only does it solve one problem with the text (where Tamora’ pregnancy comes out of nowhere), but it also shows us the continued sexually predatory nature of the two sons. Which of course ties into the scene that follows: the revelation of them as rapists.

Yesterday, I mentioned Chalsma’s ratcheting up of the bloodiness in the violence, noting that the first death–the Goth prince Alarbus’ sacrifice–is (as it is in the text) off stage. The second–Titus’ killing of his own son–is bloodless, but then the blood begins, first with trickles (Bassanius) then with torrents and body parts (Lavinia, plus two heads and a hand) in the first half-ending flood of blood.

Which causes this to happen at intermission.

The second half of the play builds to the final bloodbath: We get the bloodier knifing of the nurse and the even bloodier executions of Chiron and Demetrius. Titus’ slitting of Lavinia’s throat is a bit bloodier, then we get the sanguine piece de resistance, when Titus kills Tamora with an arterial spray that is almost comic (actually really comic since that spray hits Saturninus in the face). And then something happens. Chalsma throttles down on the blood, but not the emotional effect of the violence. In most productions, Saturninus stabs Titus; not here. Here, there is what looks to be an attempt by Titus to kill the emperor, but when the blade is dropped and switches hands, Titus kneels, but not to beg for his life but to turn away and expose his throat to the emperor who takes advantage and kills him… bloody, but not nearly as bloody as before. Lucius then tackles Saturninus pushing him across the stage and using his sword, brings blow after blow down upon him. As the emperor’s body is turned from the audience, we only see the exertion of the blows, not the blood. Thus, we’re back to bloodless violence. However, the repeated striking, becoming more bludgeoning than chopping, while brutal, becomes somehow cathartic. That catharsis becomes chilling, as we realize we are no better than those on stage.

At the end of the play, the stage is strewn with bodies. And the only non-Roman survivor is Aaron’s baby son (Aaron has been taken off to be buried to his neck and allowed to starve to death). Young Lucius in past productions (including the Taymor film) has played a significant visual role in this final sequence. Indy Shakes takes that and goes one step further. Young Lucia goes over to a Goth soldier and takes the baby. She then moves upstage center, cradling the child, singing to it. The lights begin to fade, while a soft blue light begins to glow behind her, with the bodies on the stage, she is the tallest thing on stage, and thus she seems to grow, mature. And she continues to sing to the child, as she–all in white, remember–becomes the only onstage item–person or inanimate–lit. Angelic. Possibly even the Virgin Mary. There is hope at the end of all this carnage. Simply wow.

Is the production perfect? Of course not… I mean, in a play with bows and arrows, swords and scimitars, why is there the bizarrely anachronistic clipboard? I almost began to wonder if it was placed there like Romanesque Revival architects would purposefully design flaws into the structures as their belief was that only God could create perfection. But I digress.

This is just a wonderfully nuanced production of what could be a sledgehammer of a play.

The more I think about it, the more I love it.

You all really need to see this.

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