Titus Andronicus is William Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy, and for centuries it was also generally considered to be his worst. Although the playwright’s contemporaries loved it, it wouldn’t regain popularity until after Word War II, when all the play’s hand-chopping, child-killing, rape, decapitation and cannibalism no longer seemed as outlandish as it once did. In the age of the slasher flick, Titus’s Grand Guignol elements are once again its primary selling point.
As such, even as a devoted Shakespeare fan from an early age, it took me a while to see Titus Andronicus done straight. My first experience was Thrillpeddlers’ Mondo Andronicus at the San Francisco Fringe Festival in 1997, a production that did away with most of the pesky plot and exponentially increased the already ample blood-spurting. That one-act production carried the badge of honor of being the only play I’ve ever seen that almost made me throw up. Next up was John Fisher’s Titus!, a campy site-specific parody at Yerba Buena Gardens in 1998. Eventually I’d see the show done straight, such as Joel Sass’s staging at California Shakespeare Theater last year (more on that later), but it says something about the general perception of the play that it took a while. In fact, that was the first time Cal Shakes had produced the play in its 38-year history.
Otherwise devoted to contemporary work, North Berkeley’s Impact Theatre excels at fast-paced, modern-dress productions of Shakespeare, one each season helmed by artistic director Melissa Hillman. She’s been known to increase the bloodshed in the tragedies (and even in alleged comedies such as Measure for Measure), so Titus would seem to be right up her alley.
Impact’s production isn’t really any gorier than your average Titus (there’s no getting around that it’s a bloody play), but after a slow first couple of scenes it’s crisply paced and vibrant. The show has some truly brutal stage violence choreographed by fight director Dave Maier. And Impact performs in a pizzeria basement, so there’s pizza and beer to be had, though you might not want to be eating when the characters onstage find out what they’re being served. (Save your fork—there’s pie.)
Painted a dingy white, the walls are bare in Anne Kendall’s set except for the letters SPQR (standing for the Senate and People of Rome) and a midsize flatscreen TV, on which Hillman’s staging cleverly uses video by Martín Estévez depicting imagined CNN coverage of the ancient Roman politics of the play.
Unlike Shakespeare’s other Roman plays, Titus Andronicus has no basis in historical figures. In essence, it’s a revenge tragedy, and it’s the nature of revenge that it keeps escalating as each side’s vengeance on the other has to be avenged. War hero Titus returns to Rome triumphant after a long war with the Goths. Among his prisoners are Tamora, queen of the Goths, and her sons, the eldest of which Titus executes in front of her to avenge his own sons killed in the war. The emperor has died and the people clamor for Titus to take the reins, but he’s content to choose between the two sons of the late emperor who are vying for power. Sadly he chooses the obvious scumbag, Saturninus, over his more reasonable brother Bassianus.
Saturninus immediately says he’ll seal the deal by marrying Titus’s daughter Lavinia, who unbeknownst to Titus is already engaged to Bassianus. When the latter objects and Titus’s sons back him up, Titus is aghast and the emperor is furious, developing an instant loathing for Titus and his family and choosing the captive Tamora as his bride instead. Tamora makes a show of peacemaking, privately counseling Saturninus that they must be crafty and bide their time, but she’ll be revenged on Titus and his brood: “I’ll find a day to massacre them all.” The rest of the play unfolds the horrors Tamora stealthily unleashes on Titus’s family and the fury with which the loyal general takes his revenge.
Much depends on a good Tamora, and Impact has a formidable one in Shotgun Players’ Anna Ishida. She’s powerful in her grief, fearsome in her rage, and most often eerily calm, a steely mask over her unquenchable fury. Last year’s Romeo Michael Garrett McDonald and his twin brother Mark McDonald are marvelously creepy as Tamora’s sons Demetrius and Chiron, with a chilling combination of sadistic grins and uncomprehending stares. Sarah Coykendall is graceful and wrenching as Titus’s much-tormented daughter Lavinia, and Maro Guevara is eloquent as her true love Bassianus.
Mike Delaney’s Saturninus is appropriately oily but one-note, his sneering delivery unvarying. Hillman’s husband Jon Nagel is placidly low-key as Titus’s mild-mannered brother Marcus. Cassie Rosenbrock has an effective turn as a fretful nurse, and Matt Gunnison looks on disconcertedly as an imperial functionary. Caitlyn Tella makes an upright soldier as Titus’s daughter (usually his son) Lucius, and Vince Rodriguez, Joe Loper, Joseph Mason and Carlos Martinez provide solid support as various interchangeable sons, cousins, and soldiers.
Costumer Miyuki Bierlein provides sharp suits for the Romans, fatigues for the soldiers and short summer dresses for the ladies. Sound designer Colin Trevor adds a touch of frenzy with machine gun sounds and thundering death metal, and Jax Steager’s lighting delineates asides in a way that’s effective without being intrusive.
Although California Shakespeare Theater’s production last year was in many ways a more polished staging, there are a number of aspects that work much better in the Impact version. Whereas Shawn Hamilton was more impish than sinister as Tamora’s scheming Moorish companion Aaron at Cal Shakes, Impact’s Reggie D. White is cold-blooded and calculating in the role, always watching keenly for an opportunity to nudge events further toward havoc. But even as Aaron is unrepentantly sinister, his fierce protection of and devotion to his newborn baby (promising newcomer Tamaaron Ishida-White) is honestly touching.
James Carpenter made an excellent Titus in the Cal Shakes show, but his giddiness when the old soldier goes mad proved perplexing. Impact regular Stacz Sadowski, on the other hand, only really comes to life when his Titus goes off the deep end. He’s wooden throughout the first act in the general’s stalwart (if lunkheaded) loyalty to the throne—so extreme that he thinks nothing of killing his own son on the spot for standing in the way of the emperor’s will—and in his grief when all his attempts to appease the emperor are met with scorn and murderous treachery. But in the second act, when Titus becomes consumed with giddy vengeance, Sadowski thrown himself into it with maniacal glee. A scene in which he remarks on how strongly his disguised foes resemble themselves is terribly funny.
Perhaps the biggest leg up that Impact’s Titus has over the bigger-budget Equity one last year is that the latter production was three hours while Impact’s is only two. Hillman has cut the text down mercilessly, and the play is better for it. Titus Andronicus is not one of Shakespeare’s better-crafted plays, and there are plenty of points at which it drags. Even once the action’s over there’s a ton of speechifying over the scattered bodies. Not here. Hillman has chopped it down to a much leaner, meaner play that makes it seem like that Shakespeare guy really knew what he was doing. That’s a good sign that a director’s doing something very right.
Show #25 of 2012, attended March 2.