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Titus Andronicus

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jennifer Ikeda, Jay O. Sanders, and Rob Campbell.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Throughout most of Michael Sexton's new production of Titus Andronicus at The Public Theater, the gore is somewhat restrained. Well, as restrained as it can be given how often hands are cut off and tongues are ripped out, and how many rapes and good-old-fashioned murders there are. But by the final scene, a reality cooking show that trumps anything Top Chef has ever conceived, the dam has been broken. All attempts at propriety are abandoned, gleefully and totally, as cast members start emptying plastic bags of thick red liquid left and right and throwing buckets of the stuff on each other. It's enough to make William Shakespeare's other killfest, Macbeth, look like The Berenstain Bears Live.

All of this is exciting to watch, of course, provided you have a strong stomach (and don't work in the show's wardrobe department). But the problem with Sexton's production, which stars Jay O. Sanders as the titular Roman general who triumphs over the Goths and then pays over and over for his victory, is that despite containing copious amounts of blood, it contains almost no guts. Without that visceral, guttural underpinning of emotion to explain how and why its central degradation into mutilative chaos occurs, this Titus Andronicus is a stilted and sleepy meditation on loss that's occasionally punctuated by gallons of deeply colored liquid.

Granted, many of the problems with the play are inherent in the work itself. Shakespeare's earliest tragedy, it's clearly the product of a young writer eager to make a name for himself but still struggling to find his unique voice. It's rife with allusions to the classics, particularly Ovid, and shamelessly obvious in the parallels it draws between the family of Titus and that of the Goth queen Tamora as they war from the first scene to the last. Many relationships are rendered in broad strokes, and the army of characters does lacks fine-edged distinctiveness; Shakespeare would grow out of both of these habits soon enough (you may have heard of his next tragedy, Romeo and Juliet), but here they're still in full force.

Anyone tackling this play, then, must come to terms with both the stomach-churning subject matter and the dramaturgical limitations that constantly force those qualities to the center of your vision. This requires a well-developed presentational concept, a forceful personality as Titus, and subordinate actors who are all occupying the same on-the-precipice universe. Sexton's version falls short on all three counts. Though his spin, as part of the Public's Shakespeare Lab series, gives you the chance to see this rarely mounted play for only $15, it doesn't let you experience it at its best.

The production is set in something resembling the present (Cait O'Connor's costumes comprise contemporary military fatigues and draping dresses and business suits), at what is apparently a construction yard. Scenic designer Brett J. Banakis has set a stack of plywood sheets at center stage, which become the backdrop as they're removed, set up, trodden upon, and defiled as the evening progresses. These provide a usually blank slate (though some feature drawings of crowns and swords, or words that underscore certain themes) against which the story can unfold, but what they represent is never sufficiently clear. Given Sexton's penchant for outlining his notions in neon—Titus's grandson, Mutius (Frank Dolce), is never seen without his paperback copy of the Metamorphoses that factors into the plot and the theme—this is a bit surprising.

Then there's Sanders. Recently seen on the same stage a few months ago in Richard Nelson's Sweet and Sad, he brings an avuncular, almost Santa Claus–like quality to Titus that does not establish him from the opening minutes as an existential threat to the Goth integration of the Roman ruling house. Sanders, towering but soft and bearing a thick yet intensely trimmed grey beard, doesn't project the image of man who's seen a day of combat, let alone skewered the enemy for fun and (social) profit.

This becomes more damaging as the action unfolds and Titus is exposed to ever-more debilitating grief following the deaths of his sons and the mangling of his daughter, Lavinia. You don't believe, as you must, that a great hero is being whittled away piece by piece; the effect is more of the kindly old man next door having his house set on fire by the kids he barked at to get off his lawn. Sanders summons something close to the proper fire after Titus's most egregious suffering, but it registers as manufactured anger given the showboating sensitivity we'd seen before.

Stephanie Roth Haberle and Ron Cephas Jones.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The other performers are a jumble of styles. Jacob Fishel, as the newly ascended emperor, cloaks every word in a rich, modern smugness. Rob Campbell plays Titus's oldest son Lucius as the last remaining squadron survivor in a Vietnam War movie: one (high-volume) level of despair-riddled anger and sense of duty. Sherman Howard is so detached that you might think he's auditioning for an English butler rather than playing Titus's enabling brother, Marcus. Stephanie Roth Haberle treats Tamora as a Summer Stock Medea, complete with sweeping vocal intonations and bulging-eyed, bore-through-you glares that so scream "subtext" there's no longer any sub about it.

Most successful in their roles are Jennifer Ikeda and Ron Cephas Jones. Ikeda conveys both the early entitlement and traumatized loss of Lavinia with equal authority. Jones can't make the sketchily written Moor Aaron, Tamora's lover, a person rather than the irredeemably angry caricature he's written as, but he at least provides a tasty balance between the rage and satisfaction that are his only traits.

Both actors transmit the necessary aura of the epic into this down-and-dirty play, and let it seem like something more substantial than a staged slasher flick. Neither (especially Ikeda) escapes the torrents of blood that Titus Andronicus throws at Lavinia and Aaron from every direction in its concluding scene. But it's somewhat reassuring to know that, unlike the cast members and production surrounding them, they've got their fair share surging through their veins as well.

Titus Andronicus
Through December 18
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Running Time: 3 hours, with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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