Bloody Good Show

Despite some weird editing and character decisions, LTW's 'Titus Andronicus' will get people talking

Shakespeare's horrifying first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, is an odd play to present as a plea for peace.

It includes the presentation of 22 sons killed in offstage battle, an evisceration and dismemberment, a son slain by his own father, a son slain by the sons of his father's new bride, a gang rape, one severed tongue, three severed hands, two severed heads, the execution of a prisoner of war, two murdered men baked in a pie and eaten by their own mother, and four characters murdered in quick succession in the final scene. To provide intellectual merit, there's also some philosophizing about swatting a fly.

And yet it's Titus Andronicus that Live Theatre Workshop's late-night series, Etcetera, is presenting in conjunction with the Tucson Peace Center as "a call for peace adapted from the words of William Shakespeare." Perhaps it's a form of aversion therapy. No winners emerge from this conflict, which is a fair argument for avoiding conflict.

In the fourth century, Roman general Titus Andronicus saves the empire from the invading Goths, killing their king and taking prisoner their queen, Tamora, and three of her sons, the eldest of whom he immediately sacrifices to the gods before his mother's eyes. Tamora understandably has vengeance on her mind, and receives an unexpected opportunity: Titus is elected emperor, but he defers to the claims of the dead emperor's elder son, Saturninus, who rewards Titus by claiming his daughter, Lavinia, as his bride. This is an unfortunate choice, because Lavinia is already betrothed to Saturninus' brother, Bassianus. In the end, Saturninus winds up marrying Tamora instead.

The Goth queen-turned-Roman empress sics her surviving sons, Demetrius and Chiron, on the Andronici. They murder Bassianus, then rape Lavinia and cut off her hands and tongue. Two of Titus' sons are falsely implicated by a Moor named Aaron, Tamora's lover. And so on.

Titus Andronicus--criticized by some scholars as too raw and clumsy to be the work of Shakespeare--may lack the Bard's poetry and gift for the bon mot, but neither is it as innovative as some of its supporters claim. It's a quite typical Elizabethan revenge play, though its characters tend to have more interesting motivations than were standard. Its Grand Guignol bloodiness was typical, too, of lesser Elizabethan theater, which delighted audiences by stringing up dummies and having their insides ripped out. Imagine: a Titus Andronicus piñata party.

Perhaps because of the Peace Center connection--or perhaps not--directors Christopher Johnson and Nell Summers distance the Live Theatre Workshop production somewhat from Shakespeare's violence. Some of it is eradicated entirely, but that's simply because Johnson has tightened up and slightly re-arranged the script, eliminating some characters and a subplot and hewing to the red meat of the story. In other instances, death and violence are conveyed symbolically, even poetically. Titus presents not the corpses of his battle dead, but a handful of dogtags. Entrails and blood are represented by red and white flower petals.

Other choices are less effective. Jeremy Thompson is called upon to play Titus as gentle and world-weary, essentially a man of peace--this, despite the fact that he's a general who has just vanquished a Goth army and orders the grisly execution of a captive. There are many legitimate ways to play Titus--Anthony Hopkins propelled him with unremitting anger in the 1999 Julie Taymor film, and Ken Ruta, during the 1990 Utah Shakespearean Festival, saw the character as a wry conniver. Here, Thompson is thoroughly convincing in his fatigue and anguish, but I'm not convinced that this character is capable of doing some of the things Shakespeare requires of Titus. Unless we're watching Hamlet Andronicus.

Another intriguing but somewhat problematic choice is Johnson's decision to play the two Goth princes, Chiron and Demetrius, as a single person with a split personality. One is aggressive, the other fearful and contrite. This is an arresting way to convey the warring self, or the duality of the soul, or whatever. Jonathan Pryce did it when he played Hamlet possessed by the ghost of his father, and Andy Serkis and a host of digital animators accomplished something even more similar with the Gollum/Smeagol duality in Lord of the Rings. But this creates a couple of little problems with the text and blocking, not to mention the credibility issue when everybody on stage accepts the Chiron/Demetrius meld as unremarkable.

Another interesting deviation is transforming Aaron from Tamora's Moorish male paramour into her lesbian lover. This necessitates lopping off substantial material dealing with the birth of their incriminating love child, but it makes the relationship more interesting to today's audience. (Interracial sex is so old-hat.) As Aaron, Dana Armstrong has an easy way with her lines, although her delivery is sometimes too casual for clarity.

Among the other members of the large cast, Sybille Bruun as Tamora and Jonathan Northover as Titus' son Lucius seem to the Shakespearean manner born; as tongueless Lavinia, Holli Henderson must spend the better part of her stage time looking miserable, and does so very well.

The show includes a highly effective opening sequence displayed on three video monitors, a collage of real and cartoon violence (assembled by Carolyn Marbry) that turns into CNN-like coverage of the play's opening scene. But even more could have been made of today's culture of video violence as it relates to Titus. At one point, for example, a prisoner is guarded by a figure in Army fatigues and a fencing mask; this immediately evokes images from Abu Ghraib prison, condensing the abusers and the victims into a single figure. But what of the revolting new practice of terrorists beheading their abductees on Internet video? With the monitors there, something might have been done with that. But perhaps that sort of imagery is just too repellent, too close to reality for comfort.

At any rate, to make Titus Andronicus a more effective argument for peace, its violence could have been embraced more ferociously. Instead, at the curtain call, the battered cast engages in a group hug.

Even so, this production should give people plenty to talk about, no matter their inclinations or politics, and in that respect, Titus Andronicus is a bloody good show.