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Theatre in Review: Titus Andronicus (New York Shakespeare Exchange/HERE)

Kate Lydic. Photo: Kalle Westerling

If you're looking for a bone-rattling evening of horror, the company assembled by New York Shakespeare Exchange will keep you pinned to your seat with its trim and brutal staging of Titus Andronicus.

We don't get Titus Andronicus too often; by my count, New York has seen only four major productions in the last half-century. There's a reason for that: Often dismissed as Shakespeare's bloodiest and most unashamed potboiler, it features a parade of mutilations and murders that will either leave you gasping in horror or rolling your eyes in disgust. (The last time I wrote about it, I used the words "Elizabethan torture porn.") In 1989, a friend and I fled the Delacorte Theatre at intermission, having been reduced to gales of helpless laughter at the overacting on display. In fairness, Julie Taymor had a considerable success with it in 1994, in a production I didn't see, and later made a moderately well-received film of it. But it remains a work reserved for theatrical daredevils willing to risk audience alienation or, worse, ridicule.

How to convincingly stage a drama in which even the hero kills one of his sons over a minor issue, the villains commit various acts of torture and rape, and the action climaxes in an unwitting act of cannibalism? The director, Ross Williams, takes an original tack, placing this gallery of horrors in a tawdry carnival setting. Jason Lajka's set puts a two-level stage inside a dusty-looking canvas tent, with a target, made of alternating red and white concentric circles, located upstage center. The latter object is covered with red and white bulbs, which chase and pulse during the grislier scenes. The character of the Clown, played by Kerry Kastin, is outfitted with Emmett Kelly-style makeup; in addition to playing the role assigned her by the text, she stands in for a number of minor characters, most of whom are dispatched to their doom. It's an odd conceit, but there is something compelling about the sight of Kastin, sitting at a vanity table downstage right, gazing on the acting dejectedly as the characters hatch their plots. At moments like these, you may feel as if you're watching a new edition of American Horror Story subtitled Circus of Blood.

And like that Ryan Murphy series, Williams' staging takes you right to the edge of camp without ever tipping over. This is revenge tragedy at its most remorseless. The title character, a military hero, refuses the crown of Rome. Instead, it goes to the corrupt, luxury-loving Saturninus, who weds Tamora, queen of the recently vanquished Goths. But Tamora has plans for revenge against Titus, and her vicious sons, Demetrius and Chiron, enact their own reign of terror. Before it is over, Titus will have lost almost everyone he loves, along with one of his hands. But he gains his revenge in a stomach-churning climax that, half a millennium later, still packs a gut punch.

In this production, Titus' murder of his son happens so swiftly and almost casually that it comes as a head-snapping surprise. In contrast, the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, Titus' beloved daughter, is an agonizingly drawn out affair. We see her surrounded by Demetrius and Chiron, who toy with her before administering a brutal blow to her face. The worst happens offstage, but then Kate Lydic (a remarkable Lavinia) returns, staggering across the stage, a terrible bruise on her face, grunting because she has lost her tongue. Turning to the audience, she raises her arms and, in a version of an idea first used by Peter Brook, her sleeves unravel to the floor, silently revealing that her hands have been severed. (In a rare instance of understatement, she is presented to the stunned Titus with the simple words, "This was thy daughter.") Later, the killing of Demetrius and Chiron is a dragged-out affair, a powerful reminder that, whatever we see on film or stage, the act of murder is harder than it looks. The climax, in which Titus bakes the two young men into pies and serves them to Tamora, might seem laughable in other hands, but not here.

That so much of Williams' production works is thanks in no small part to the fine cast he has assembled. As Titus, Brendan Averett provides a solid anchoring presence, charting his descent from war hero to madman and his resurrection (of sorts) as a master revenger. Averett finds a depth of fury that makes believable Titus' ruthless thirst for justice. In contrast, Gretchen Egolf's Tamora is an ice-cold politician, using sexual favors to keep Saturninus in her thrall and dispatching her victims to their bloody ends with little more than a murmur. There are also strong, well-spoken contributions from Vince Gatton, a feline Saturninus; Joseph Mitchell Parks as Lucius, Titus' stalwart eldest son; Terence MacSweeny as Marcus, Titus' deeply distressed brother and ally; and Nathaniel P. Claridad and Ethan Itzkow, a pair of prize bad seeds, as Demetrius and Chiron. In a class by himself is Warren Jackson as Aaron, Tamora's Moorish lover and partner in crime, handling the verse with unusual vigor and wit.

Drew Florida lights Lajka's set fluidly, carving the space into various playing spaces without losing the sense of the circus tent conceit. Elivia Bovenzi's costumes employ a number of clever touches, such as gold metal cuffs and collars, to make contemporary clothes represent ancient Rome. Demetrius and Chiron sport heavy eye and face makeup -- these Goths are really goth -- and Saturninus is dressed in a kind of fussy chic that suits his character perfectly. Jack Cummins' sound design makes especially sinister use of carnival music. This is, I think, the first production I have seen that features a credit for props/violence design, but Cassie Dorland performs both tasks with obvious relish.

Not everything works: In the first half, each killing is followed by the pulling of a cord, which unleashes a stream of corn seeds into a metal tub. It's a strange idea, even if it may be an allusion to Marcus' comment, at the climax, "O, let me teach you how to knit again/This scatter'd corn into one mutual sheaf/These broken limbs again into one body." It was probably conceived as an alternate to the now-clich├ęd idea of pouring out a bucket of blood after each killing, but it comes across as a little abstract. There is a chilling moment up front when the silhouettes of the cast members, standing behind the tent's canvas, become visible, but it leads into an elaborate and obvious movement sequence that climaxes in everyone dropping dead -- as if the production needs more of that. Here and there, the tone wobbles a bit.

But most of the time Williams and his cast chart the brutal logic of blood for blood, life for life. As the maddened Titus says, "Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive/That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?" Watching this production, you won't doubt it for a second.--David Barbour

(27 January 2015)

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