Those who believe that a preoccupation with viewing gruesome horror is a relatively modern occurrence should head on over to the Intiman Theatre where one can view one of the granddaddies of the horror genre, Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus. There one can watch ten major murders, two horrific mutilations and a scene of cannibalism that would do Sweeney Todd and Hannibal Lecter proud.
Titus Andronicus, believed to have been written in 1590 when plays featuring intense violence and degradation were in vogue, is considered to be one of Shakespeare's problem plays, and indeed, scholarly opinion used to deny Shakespeare's authorship on the grounds that the level of writing and subject matter were beneath the sensibilities of such a great writer. However, plays like Titus were the equivalent of Friday the 13th movies in the late 16th century and Shakespeare was merely writing for his audience, all the while providing clues of the greatness to come.
Indeed, a great deal of Titus contains themes, characters and situations that Shakespeare would elaborate on in his later, more mature works. Titus (Steve Tague), the Roman general who has lost 21 sons during his many battles against the Goths, led by the queen Tamora (Kathleen Pirkl Tague), foreshadows Lear with his obstinate stubbornness dooming him and all he loves. His refusal to spare the life of Tamora's oldest son sparks a war of escalating revenges ala Hamlet and her blood-thirsty machinations recall Lady MacBeth sans the latter's introspection and attack of conscious. Therein lies the flaw of Titus, actually: it contains all the blood and revenge necessary to titillate an audience, but none of the character development, psychological insight nor inner awareness audiences have come to expect from the Bard.
All involved in this production give their all to bring this troubled play to coherent and engaging life and for the most part succeed admirably. Director Bartlett Sher, whose acclaimed production of Cymbeline last year was performed at Intiman before moving to the RSC in Stratford and an extended Off-Broadway run, has created a spare, stripped down version, largely allowing the play to be received through its own words and merit. He deftly handles the action and keeps it and his actors clear and understandable. However, his anachronistic touches, so effectively utilized in Cymbeline, largely distract in Titus and throw the balance of the show unhealthily towards melodramatic comedy, especially in the second act. The true villain of the piece (as he has no motivation for any of his vile actions), the Moor, Aaron (Allen Gilmore) has his famous speech upstaged by Titus dragging a glowing, coffin-sized freezer onto the stage. The use of duct tape to gag Tamara's sons (Hans Altwies and Kelly Boulware) provokes laughter that diffuses the horror that is about to occur. Also, for such a bloody show, this production of Titus is largely stain free (two freshly lopped off heads, for example, are carried on stage in thin, white bags that display nary a trace of gore). While one applauds Sher's restraint on one level, the overall feeling is a production 'sanitized for our protection.'
The main actors in Titus meet the challenges and drawbacks of the piece admirably. As Tamara, Kathleen Pirkl Tague is the driving force of the play, as her grief and need for revenge fuel the conflagrations that occur. With Joan Crawford eyebrows and a four foot braid, she is a like an Arabian mare, vacillating between a show of tractability and gentleness to a hard gallop of fury.
Titus' most emotionally poignant and truthful scene between Titus' brother, Marcus (the always stellar Laurence Ballard) and daughter, Lavinia (a very gripping, understated performance by Kristin Flanders) is beautifully handled by all involved and is the high point of the show. Mention also must be made of Alban Dennis, who gives a solid, nuanced performance as Titus' remaining son, Lucius.
Steve Tague as the titular general gives a problematic performance, either due to acting or directorial choices. The majority of the first act has him behaving more like a befuddled senior citizen than a battle-weary, but highly capable, general. Thus, one has a hard time feeling sympathy for him, as one wants to smack him out of his torpor and tell him to start behaving like the commander he truly is. When he finally does rise from his stupor at the end of the first act, the character (as, indeed, does the entire show) comes to glorious and engaging life.
The show is greatly enhanced by Deborah Jensen's set, which consists of a rough, wooden plank floor crossed by a thin, metal scaffold containing harsh fluorescent lights well utilized by lighting designer Christopher Akerlind. Composer/sound designer John Still has created an almost Japanese taiko drum suite, which augments the action on stage and serves as sound effects for the many battles and fights that occur, and is well realized by Kimo Muraki. The costumes are a bit problematic as they appear to have an underlying theme or message through their color scheme (a gradation of teal, from Tamara's dark teal dress to Lavinia's virginal white), which unfortunately is not readily apparent.
While not one of the Bard's best, Titus Andronicus remains an engaging (if somewhat flawed) piece well worth seeing. Titus Andronicus runs through April 27th at the Intiman Theatre. For more information visit www.intiman.org.
Photo: Chris Bennion