Titus Andronicus

13934802_10154353582585797_7018449335951891274_nWhen I was asked to review Titus Andronicus at SixTHReeFouR produced by Cup A Jo Productions, I had some concerns. Being a musical theatre guy, this would be outside of my wheelhouse and furthermore violence isn’t my thing.  However, knowing some of my most memorable theatre experiences have been straight plays, I quickly took the assignment.  As luck would have it, this production of Titus is one of those memorable theatre experiences.

Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare’s first plays, written in the early 1590s. It’s fictional, his first to be published and his most violent. Set in the declining days of the Roman Empire, Titus has just returned to Rome victoriously after ten years battling the Goths. He brings home as prisoners Tamora, their Queen, her sons, and Aaron, her secret lover. Titus sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son as revenge for the deaths of his own son’s during the war.

Upon his return, Titus learns that his brother the Emperor has died. Exhausted from years of battle, Titus refuses the offer of the throne, instead supporting the Emperor’s son Saturninus’ ascendance. Saturninus announces his first act as emperor will be to marry Titus’ daughter Lavinia.  Unfortunately, she is already engaged to Bassianus, Saturninus’ brother. Without getting into every plot twist and turn, Saturninus, who is not the brightest candle in the chandelier, then decides to marry Tamora, the Goth Queen.  Once she is out of prison and now empress she is free to plot her revenge against Titus. Thus begins the spree of rape and murder with an “eye for an eye” leaving no one standing at the end.

I think everyone of us who has grown up as a theatre nerd has put on a show using the garage as the stage, couple of sheets and chairs in the driveway.  We pray it doesn’t rain for opening night. SixTHReeFouR is exactly that. The garage door becomes the back wall of the stage; the driveway covered in mulch is the stage and the audience is on the lawn between the house and stage. There is random collection of odd disconnected objects strewn about. There are Christmas lights in the trees with a few strategically placed hidden fixtures providing a surreal glow. It is just enough light as the sun finally sets. It’s a cool, crisp autumn night as the performance begins.

All are dressed in black as a well-choreographed fight scene by Shaun Rolly begins the performance and sets our minds for the action to begin. The actors form the wings and back drops when not “on stage”.  After the opening scene they don their white HAZMAT suits. Everyone becomes the same, just people, not Romans, not Goths, just humans. As the actors move through their roles, colored armbands and headscarves help us understand who is on what side. Everyone starts out pure white, and as the story progresses each character becomes more soiled by the blood of violence and the stains from the mulch. The HAZMAT suits for all their protection are like life. They are rugged yet fragile. By the end, they are stained, ripped and torn, like the lives of the characters that inhabit them.

It takes a strong acting company to pull of Shakespeare and this is not a group of first timers from the neighborhood. The cast is engaging and compelling in their performances. Brett Sullivan Santry as Titus brings a battle weary patina to the role, he has seen and done it all in the name of the Emperor. Everett Lowe as Saturninus presents a presidential quality to his role as the new Emperor, with all those vulnerabilities we have seen in our leaders in years past. Samantha Camp’s Tamora has just the right amount of vamp in her step and smile to get Saturninus to happily do her bidding. Christopher Collier owns the stage when he is on as Aaron. For a couple of guys who play rapists and mutilators, Connor McNelis and Andy Hickly, as Chiron and Demetrius, bring a couple of much needed laughs to the proceedings.

Michael Kolczynski’s subtle heavy metal score is amazingly just the right counterpoint to the violence and cruelty on stage.

Throughout the history of the productions of Titus, directors have struggled with how to portray the violence; stabbings, amputations, tongues being cut out and beheadings. Early productions tended to be extremely graphic to the point the play fell out of favor for several centuries. Modern adaptations have ranged from extremely graphic on stage violence, to more stylized approaches with ribbons representing blood, or the violent acts occurring off stage with just the screams of the victims being heard.

In this Titus, Director and Cup A Jo founder, Joanne Lowe’s is a hybrid approach. The acts all occur in full view on stage, but instead of red ribbons, the perpetrators dip their hands in strategically placed vats of blood, smearing it across their victims and themselves. Each carries the scars of their heinous acts for life. By the end, it is clear all have become victims to the violence of revenge.

In today’s world of increasing senseless acts aimed so often as vengeance this show reminds us of the evils of retribution as justice and the need for forgiveness, lest none of us will be left standing at the end.

The marketing of this production warns of the violence and includes trigger warnings in the advertising. I hope this doesn’t dissuade you from attending this memorable production.

Thanks to Cup-A-Joe Productions for the complementary tickets.

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus at SixTHReeFouR, 634 Sheridan Street, East Liberty October 6th & 7th at 8pm. Tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/titus-andronicus-tickets-26393441494