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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Titus Redux

Jack Stehlin and John F. Bocca
"Oh gracious conqueror, fuck you!" When Tamora utters her first line in Titus Redux, it's pretty clear that this version of Titus Andronicus has no qualms about departing, sometimes wildly, from Shakespeare's text. But the dialogue isn't the biggest change here, nor is the resetting of the play to a modern-day general returning to the United States from war in Afghanistan.

The biggest change is that Tamora is no longer Queen of Titus's defeated enemy, quickly elevated to wife of his emperor. Instead, vengeful Tamora is Titus's wife, embittered because Titus did not yield to her pleas to not take their eldest son with him to war. Now that Titus has returned, bringing the remains of their son in a small box, Tamora can't even bear to share the same room with him.

In concept, this is a delicious idea: showing the family torn apart by the death of a son at war. And when the family starts taking sides—Demetrius and Chiron side with their mother while Lavinia remains daddy's girl—the change looks like it's going to work. The resetting of the play also looks good when Aaron is transformed from Tamora's slave to simply a Muslim neighbor of the Andronicus family. In what may be the most successful scene of this adaptation, Aaron unrolling his prayer rug is juxtaposed with Titus unrolling his exercise mat, and religious prayers take place next to military push-ups. It is a thought-provoking image, and the play could use more like it.

Unfortunately, there aren't many. Instead, the attempt to make Tamora Titus's wife and still keep true to the main plot points of Shakespeare's original seems too much for adapter John Farmanesh-Bocca, and the result too often doesn't make sense. Shakespeare's Tamora had reason to encourage her sons to rape and mutilate Lavinia—after all, Shakespeare's Titus had killed Tamora's precious son after the battle was over. But having this Tamora goad her sons into doing the same to their own sister? Telling them, in Shakespeare's words, "The worse to her, the better lov'd of me" and being deaf to Lavinia's (newly added) pleas of "Mom" make Tamora's motivation inexplicable. She apparently wants to avenge the death of one of her children by having two others torture a third. (And there is no sign in Brenda Strong's performance that Tamora is simply insane with grief.)

Titus Redux does offer another motivation. Lavinia catches Tamora sharing a kiss with Aaron and threatens to tell her father. While this serves as a possible cause of Tamora's decision that Lavinia needs to be silenced, it falls apart when we learn, later in the play, that (as in Shakespeare) Tamora and Aaron are lovers who have produced a child but (unlike Shakespeare) that child was born before the play began, while Titus was at war. In other words, nobody—not even Lavinia, who was living in the same house as her mother—noticed that Tamora was pregnant (when she could not have conceived with Titus), nor did they notice that Aaron's wife somehow magically had a child around the time that Tamora delivered. If Aaron's child in Titus Redux is Tamora's, Tamora's infidelity would have been known long before Lavinia spotted them kissing.

There's also the rather confusing plot point of Aaron (pretending to be a member of the Taliban enemy) convincing a captured Titus to give up his hand to save his sons, and then delivering to Titus the heads of his sons, when the only sons Titus has in this play (Chiron and Demetrius) are very much alive. Here, it isn't entirely clear if the events are happening or if Titus is simply flashing back to the war and trying to save his men. But, since he starts the scene with two hands and ends it with one, we have to conclude that the events are actually happening in the present. If this is true, Aaron is simply taking advantage of Titus's extremely loose grasp of reality. But the question still remains, exactly whose heads is he handing over?

Titus's mental break with reality is clearly conveyed—both by Jack Stehlin's wild bug-eyed performance and the production itself. Titus Redux incorporates stylized dance, strictly choreographed movements, music, film, superhero costumes, and some dreamlike imagery. Even the use of Shakespearean dialogue, when contrasted with the modern, expletive-filled language sometimes used, seems itself to be a stylized part of the enhanced reality of Titus's world.

The play clocks in a half-hour longer than the 90-minute running time promised in the program; in retrospect, a faster-moving descent into madness might have had more impact (Lavinia doesn't need a full song before she spots Tamora and Aaron together; a lengthy dance with Titus and two soldiers before a flashback scene is also unnecessary).

The whole production is a very ambitious attempt, but it ultimately needs to be more true to its Shakespearean source, or substantially less.

Titus Redux plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through September 12, 2010. For tickets and information, see

Circus Theatricals and Not Man Apart—Physical Theatre Ensemble present Titus Redux. Conceived, choreographed and directed by John Farmanesh-Bocca. Produced by Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin, Jack Stehlin and John Farmanesh-Bocca. Costume Designer Allison Leach; Lighting Designer John Rousseau; Sound Design John Farmanesh-Bocca and Adam Phalen; Special F/X Jason Collins; Film Direction and Editing John Farmanesh-Bocca; Props Michael Buffo; Set Kitty Rose; Director of Photography James Skylar; Associate Producer Vanessa Waters; Stage Manager Lily Garrison; Assistant Stage Manager Susan K. Coulter; Associate Choreographers Vincent Cardinale, Dash Pepin, Jones Welsh; Fight Captain Dash Pepin; Dance Captain Vincent Cardinale; Casting Director Jami Rudofskyp; Press Representative Julio Martinez; Choreography Intern Kristin d'Andrea.

Titus Andronicus - Jack Stehlin
Tamora - Brenda Strong
Lavinia - Margeaux J. London
Demetrius - Dash Pepin
Chiron - Vincent Cardinale
Marcus Andronicus - Nicholas Hormann
Aaron - John F. Bocca

Photo: Ed Krieger

- Sharon Perlmutter

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