Especially apt in this time of political turmoil, Shakespeare’s earliest, bloodiest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, is so grim that it sometimes crosses over the line into black comedy. Replete with the horrors of hacked off limbs, brutal rape, cannibalism, outrageous cruelty and devilish wickedness three centuries in advance of the Gran Guignol of Paris, this was the popular entertainment of the time, no different, really, than Game of Thrones.
In Theatricum Botanicum’s splendid production of Titus Andronicus, the time is the near future and Shakespeare’s Rome is left behind. The setting is an unnamed republic in turmoil over the death of the latest president. The president’s two sons, the bitter rivals Saturninus (Christopher W. Jones) and Bassianus (Turner Frankosky), vie to take over. The popular general Titus Andronicus (Sheridan Crist) returns from ten years of ceaseless battle with dead to be buried and prisoners of war. He gains the undying enmity of the alluring prisoner, Queen Tamora (Marie-Françoise Theodore), when he executes her youngest son, an act of retribution for the death of one of his sons. Spurning the popular acclaim that begs him to become the leader of the republic, he throws his influence behind Saturninus going so far as to give his daughter, Lavinia (Michelle Wicklas), to him for wife. Trouble is, she is already betrothed to Bassianus. After much turmoil and a great deal nasty ill will, including a scene where Titus kills one of his own sons for opposing him, Lavinia goes off with Bassianus and Saturninus takes the sexy Tamora for his wife. At his point it becomes obvious that Titus is becoming unhinged. And we have four acts to go.
Titus Andronicus is justly famous for its graphic depictions of cruelty and wickedness. The most horrible incident in a play filled with awful deeds, is the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, which, like Oedipus’ eye gouging, takes place off stage. Tamora’s sons Demetrius (Miebaka Yohannes) and Chiron (Nima Jafari), a couple of snarling dogs with no impulse control, are inveigled into a plan to capture and rape Lavinia by Aaron (Michael McFall), Tamora’s secret lover and the uber-villain of the play. So she will be unable to reveal the identities of her assailants, the brothers cut off Lavinia’s hands so she can’t write and cut out her tongue so she can’t speak. When she stumbles onstage in that condition, it is the single most searing moment of the play. The already unstable Titus goes full-on bonkers and the rest of the play deals with more horror, death, revenge and bodies everywhere.
Titus Andronicus is a tough one to stage and director Ellen Geer has done a terrific job in making a play filled with many characters and detailed action comprehensible to a modern audience. With so many intricate plot points, it would be very easy to get lost in the minutiae and that doesn’t happen here. Making it modern dress and casting women in important roles traditionally played by men helps a great deal in keeping the characters straight, but it is the declamatory style of heightened speech and the great physicality of the action that does the trick. No naturalism here. This is passionate playing at its very best.
In the title role, Sheridan Crist is a force of nature. Cruel, belligerent and bull-headed, his Titus is not a sympathetic character, but, with a few exceptions, tragic heroes aren’t meant to be until after their downfall. Pitied perhaps, but not envied.
As the villainous psychopath Aaron, Michael McFall is terrific—over-the-top evil and bad-to-the-bone. Imposing in size, and huge of voice, Aaron has no regrets:
“I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.”
Matching Aaron in wickedness, the Tamora of Marie-Françoise Theodore is a passionate succubus, playing her husband for a fool and plotting revenge on Titus. As the noble Marcia, Titus’ sister, Melora Marshall is the voice of compassionate reason.
The production makes full use of the venue with action that extends beyond the stage proper into the surrounding woods and up and down the stairs of the auditorium. Jordan-Marc Diamond’s costumes help transform the scene from the original Rome to a place unspecified modern as does the original soundscape created by composer Marshall McDaniel.
This gripping production of Titus Andronicus continues in rotating rep with The Imaginary Invalid, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Tom through October 2 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon.