nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
December 10, 2011
The production of Titus Andronicus currently on offer at The Public Theater is high-concept and low-budget—the extremities of both left me overly-confused and woefully under-dazzled.
To be fair, this particular early Shakespearean play is not, in its soul, a timeless one. Mostly known for its gruesome violence (and most familiar to contemporary audiences because of Julie Taymor’s visually-arresting 2001 film adaptation), Titus certainly has narrative elements that might suggest its contemporary relevance: Titus comes home to Rome victorious from war, bringing as his prisoner Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, and her sons, the oldest of which Titus immediately has executed to avenge the death of his own sons killed by the enemy. Tamora and her two sons swear revenge—and within a few minutes, she is betrothed to the new Roman Emperor (a post offered to Titus by the people but which he declines and graciously confers upon one of the late Emperor’s two sons) and a bloody cycle of revenge begins.
So immediately the text gives us a military man who chooses custom over compassion—who is too modest to head his country yet feels fully qualified to sentence a man to death with bureaucratic fervor. And we have a new Empress who is singularly obsessed with achieving vengeance. This all happens within the first five hundred lines. Shakespeare gives us little time to appreciate familial bonds on either side (indeed, I’ve skipped over Titus offering his already-betrothed daughter to the new Emperor and slaying his own son who tries to help her escape). It’s very hard to have sympathy for either side, and the next four acts are a cavalcade of senseless violence.
And the senselessness is exactly the problem. If this play provides such scant insight into the murderer’s hearts—if we can’t see how we ourselves could be capable of committing the same atrocities—is this then a useful cautionary tale or a particularly vivid public service announcement? Or an episode from the Nature Channel, acted out by human beings?
I’m going to assume that director Michael Sexton and his design team believe that we can learn something important from all of this. Their aesthetic could be called “Rural NRA Snuff Film”: army fatigues, black hatchets and knives, stingy lighting. The set is almost entirely comprised of stacks of plywood planks, some with words like “rape” and “murder,” and others with hasty illustrations of crowns and birds. (My theatre-going companion suggested a more fitting title, Sawhorse.) Non-military characters are dressed in costume shop odds-and-ends except for Titus’s brother, visiting from The Cherry Orchard, and Titus’s tank-topped and be-winged grandson, a comely decoy from To Catch a Predator.
The boy and the actor playing the Emperor’s brother each play multiple roles with no change of costume or affect. In general, Sexton seems to have overestimated his audience’s familiarity with The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. By stripping it down and loading it with esoteric imagery, he is relying on an imagined lushness of language, and by directing his actors to have bursts of feeling that objectively resemble an alderman choking during a televised city council meeting.
It’s hard to blame him for the confusing reduction in cast as there are many quickly-dispatched characters in this play and few desirable roles. This ensemble is full of some terrific actors, but none of them quite transcends the silly-sacred tone of this anemic bloodbath.