William Shakespeare's tragedy Titus Andronicus is not often performed, largely because it is an early work with a reputation as Shakespeare's bloodiest play. It's true that this drama of an escalating cycle of revenge is not nuanced, but as staged by director Gale Edwards at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company, it has an undeniable visceral power.
Edwards has set the tragedy of Titus (Sam Tsoutsouvas), the victorious Roman general, and the conquered Goth queen Tamora (Valerie Leonard) in an indeterminate present. As envisioned through Murell Horton's costume designs, the Roman patricians wear white robes over smartly tailored suits and address their followers through floor microphones, but the Roman soldiers wear leather armor, and the Goth princes take some fashion cues from the contemporary definition of "goth."
To stress the underlying fatalism of the play, set designer Peter England works through abstractions: voluminous curtains that turn bloody red or funereal black under Mary McCullough's lighting, and scenery comprised largely of rectangular boxes painted black. These are the coffins of the 21 sons Titus lost in battle (four survive as the play begins); they are the floor of the forest where characters are ambushed, raped, dismembered, murdered and framed for the murder; and they are the dining table where the guilty ultimately get what's coming to them.
Edwards understands, through her methodical pacing, how to build tension to create an overpowering cumulative effect. Each calamity inevitably leads to another until exhaustion brings a resolution – although it's not at all clear how long the calm will last.
Titus begins the play with the confidence and rectitude of one who knows exactly what he has to do. If victory in war means that Titus must publicly sacrifice one of Tamora's sons, he has no question in the matter. When the two sons of the late Roman emperor - petulant, arrogant Saturninus (Alex Podulke) and the more level-headed Bassianus (Michael Brusasco) - contend for the title, Titus chooses Saturninus for no reason but that he is the older brother. Titus then gives his daughter Lavinia (Colleen Delany) to Saturninus, despite her previous betrothal to Bassianus, and fights his own sons when they challenge him.
Tsoutsouvas is a large, broad-shouldered man who dominates the action at first like a bull, before breaking under the weight of his despair and the violence he has unleashed. Leonard is slender but steely, a woman in a man's world who is determined to learn her enemy's weaknesses and strike back any way she can. Podulke has the sleek menace of a well-bred assassin, and Peter Macon offers a pure incarnation of fury as Aaron the Moor, servant and lover to Tamora.
Shakespeare Theatre Company