The stagewide void from which a pair of gigantic eyes stare blankly in Titus Andronicus seems undifferentiated at first—black, inky, impenetrable.
But blackness—whether of hue or of soul—has textures, and director Gale Edwards means to explore them individually in her retro-futurist staging. To an ominous symphonic fanfare, she dims the houselights and, before anyone arrives onstage, illuminates the particulars of the void they’ll inhabit: ebony flooring polished to a mirror finish, the better to reflect villainy; gauzy sable curtains with voluminous folds for cloaking deceit; a pathway of death—charred, rough wood that turns out to be an endless row of soldiers’ coffins receding into the distance.
It is down the center of this path that Titus (Sam Tsoutsouvas) strides wearily home after a decade of battling the Goths. A victorious general, he has a natural leader’s gravity, a warrior’s endurance, but there’s no spring left in his step as he acknowledges the cheers of the crowd. He just wants the job finished, and to that end he’s brought the Goth Queen Tamora (Valerie Leonard) and her sons home in chains. As payback for all the Roman lives lost, he orders the eldest Goth prince torn limb from limb.
That this act of gratuitous revenge might lead to further revenges doesn’t seem to occur to him. When Tamora begs mercy for her child, Titus—having lost 21 of his own sons in battle—blithely notes that he’s spared the lives of her two youngest sons so they can join her in slavery.
Of course, that’s not quite how things work out in this bloodbath and beyond. Titus could be named emperor—the public is clamoring for him—but he’s anxious to retire and instead makes a very bad call, backing the imperial ambitions of a smarmy rabble-rouser named Saturninus. The new ruler—a creepy head-case as played by Alex Podulke—promptly claims Titus’ daughter, Lavinia (Colleen Delany) for his wife, but when she runs off with his younger brother, Saturninus marries Tamora, more or less sealing the doom of the entire Andronicus clan. In short order, hands and heads are being lopped off with such abandon that even the murderous Macbeths would cringe.
It’s not quite fair, though, to dismiss Titus Andronicus as merely gruesome Shakespearean juvenilia. Yes, he was a young writer in the late 16th century, writing a slasher epic, but even so early in his career, he couldn’t help giving emotional texture to the text. When the director calls our attention to the varied surfaces her designers have put on display in the play’s early moments, she’s doing so with the characters’ surface qualities in mind—Tamora, all satiny charm when out in public; Saturninus oily, oozing contempt for those who cross him; Titus leathery and resolute; his son Lucius (Chris Genebach) as steely as his sword.
This texturizing works best at the smoother end of the spectrum. If Lavinia possesses porcelain beauty and a brittle hauteur, she’ll shatter persuasively when hacked apart by Tamora’s feral sons (Ryan Farley and David L. Townsend). But they only register as spiky and coarse in one-dimensional ways, and the Queen’s blackhearted slave Aaron (Peter Macon) is often rough and thuggish at the expense of the wit in his lines.
Still, there’s no denying that the viscera has a visceral impact as characters get knifed in the back, the neck, the groin, and any other body part that’s momentarily unprotected. Edwards’ staging puts much of the gore front and center, and there’s plenty of it, so with a design scheme working overtime—black lacquer forests spinning this way and that, punked-out rapists romping around in S&M drag, political harangues echoing over loudspeakers—the first half of the evening roars along like an Orwellian nightmare. You don’t even have to stretch much to find contemporary parallels when two politicians, one smirking and empty-headed, the other a wonk who’s not great at getting his message across, have their leadership struggle decided (in favor of the smirker), by a precedent- and tradition-citing figure of authority.
By intermission, however, things have nowhere to go but over the top, and with a little push from the director, they quickly do. Tamora, deciding that Titus has lost his mind, appears before him in a sequence that suggests the designers must have lost theirs—under a spinning disco ball, tricked out in spangles, turquoise sequins, and red horns and talons. She’s accompanied by one son in drag with rouged nipples, and another in a sepulchral Cat-in-the-Hat get-up. At which point, Edwards gets religion and arranges an upside-down crucifixion to precede Titus’ cosy little dinner soiree, staged as a sort of cannibalistic Last Supper.
Which is not to suggest that the performances lack punch. Tsoutsouvas is a decently majestic Titus when the character’s still in his right mind, a sort of Lear-in-training, trapped by his belief that rules must always be followed, no matter what logic and intuition are screaming in his ear. Though he keeps saying he’s devoted to his family, this military man truly loves Rome best, and that’s his downfall. As the Queen who reviles him, Leonard snarls and coos persuasively throughout and has a nice moment of revulsion when she realizes she’s just dined on her sons. As Lavinia’s doomed husband, Bassianus, Michael Brusasco dies eloquently on a sigh, head turned on a severed throat, to look one last time at his beloved bride. When she begs to be killed a moment later, noting that she was slain when he died, you believe in them both.
Peter England’s hard lacquers and swirling fabrics, all in black and white, conjure a whole world of hurt when drenched in bloody reds and sickly greens by Mark McCullough’s lighting, and composer Martin Desjardins doesn’t just underscore the carnage, he powers and pushes it along with crashing chords and operatic crescendos. It’s lurid, but that’s sort of the point. Murell Horton’s leather combat gear and flowing white robes are at once character-pinioning and eye-catching even before they trip off to the disco.
By that time the Guignol’s gotten way too grand to be inspiring chills but still isn’t loopy enough to be amusing in its own right. And though the fault may lie partly with the production, the Bard has to shoulder some of the blame. There’s a reason Titus Andronicus is less frequently produced (this is Shakespeare Theatre’s first go at it) than almost all of the Bard’s tragedies these days. Robust as the playwright made its early passages, he hadn’t yet figured out how to wrap things up with a tragic flourish, rather than just a stage strewn with corpses.
Happily, he got the balance right less than a year later, with a story about a couple of kids and a balcony. That one works like a charm.