February 2, 2014

Dismembered Paws and Circular Saws: Titus Andronicus at the Schwartz

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Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, has long been overlooked due to the spectacular nature of its violence, its dismissal by T.S. Eliot as “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written” and its reinterpretation of the tragedy structure which presents massacre without redemption. However, Spencer Whale ’14 and the Department of the Performing and Media Arts have constructed a nearly flawless reimagining of the classically maligned play.

The production of Titus begins with actors reading from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and calling out the roles they will be performing. The original play does not use this framing device (although it does reference the work), but it is hardly anachronistic within the body of Shakespeare’s work, in which the play-within-a-play is a trademark. The choice is interesting, and while it makes the plot a little bit difficult to untangle by the end it certainly serves Whale’s intention of putting Titus Andronicus into context — both historical and modern. Whale explained that the creative choices were made because, “the play itself is wildly anachronistic, and self-consciously references periods from Ancient Rome to Elizabethan England, so we wanted to create a world that could support that whole range of cultural history, as well as adding our modern vocabulary.” This thesis is obvious, as the costuming is a hybrid of period garb and duct tape, the violence is orchestrated by both swords and circular saws and the execution of Shakespeare’s humor is as much about physical comedy as it is about wordplay.

While all Shakespeare plays contain comedy, Titus in particular has a special amount of humor in it for being a tragedy — frequent jokes are made about the “stumps” of characters whose hands have been chopped off — using Shakespeare’s signature turns of phrase and the actors’ talents for physical comedy to add a sardonic spin on much of the third act. Whale’s skills as director are on full display here as the actors transition fluidly from what seems initially to be a tragic tale in classic style and quickly becomes a ludicrous massacre. It was hard to know if it was okay to laugh at many points, a fact that Whale said he was explicitly aware of. He explained that, “Titus realizes he has no tears left to shed, and the play makes an unexpected turn into nihilistic, absurdist humor. Audience members react differently to the humor, at first — some find it horrific, some find it hilarious — but by the end of the play we all join Titus in his laughter.”

The revenge plot branches out from a first act conflict between the Roman war hero Titus Andronicus (Adam Gianforte ’15) and Queen of the Goths, Tamora (Sarah Coffey ’16), and it slowly engulfs every member of the two families. It becomes increasingly difficult to take sides as each family racks up a rap sheet of dismemberment, rape and murder, starting out as overreactions and soon becoming senseless.  Gianforte’s role is underplayed in the first act, but he shines in the absurdity of the second and third, commanding attention with his expertly dry Sam Rockwell-style humor — at one point he gives a monologue from atop a unicycle. Coffey is the emotional force of the play, delivering moments of heart-wrenching emotional appeal as a bereaved mother as well as gut-wrenching moments of revolting cruelty as a woman bent on excessive revenge. As Aaron the Moor, Alexander Quilty ’15 is positively chilling and impossible to look away from — every scene he appears in inspires genuine terror.

His character is meant to be the embodiment of evil, an entropic force that amplifies the tragedy of the plot with almost unwatchable ambivalence. Many significant plot points revolve around Aaron’s establishment as dark-skinned, and therefore cursed — a fact that presents obvious challenges in a contemporary portrayal. Whale states a belief in Shakespeare’s intention to “[lay] the blame on society more than the color of Aaron’s skin,” and notes that Shakespeare takes care to humanize him throughout the play. The way that the character was handled in this production was problematic — while it was done more tastefully than it could have been, it was hardly necessary to mark Aaron with streaks of black face paint in order to illustrate that his character was black, and removal of a choice line or two would hardly have been unwonted censorship.

The production incorporated every square inch of the limited space in the Black Box Theatre, with action occurring within inches of the audience, in suspended harnesses and on an arrangement of metal scaffoldings. While the plot of Titus runs a million miles a minute — managing to present at least a dozen deaths and other atrocities in rapid succession — this production managed even more dynamism: every actor was acting 100 percent of the time and there were always at least four different places to look to be entertained. This excess was overwhelming but fully in step with the nature of the play. Whale told The Sun, “Sometimes excess is the best way to make a point, and the excesses in Titus make for both wild entertainment and difficult viewing, depending on the production and the audience.” The viewing of this production of Titus is definitely difficult — the rape of Lavinia occurred maybe three feet from my chair — but it’s also riveting, and a compelling choice in the time of the violent spectacle film.

Some of the same questions that surround Quentin Tarantino’s handling of the cyclical nature of revenge (Kill Bill, Django Unchained) or Harmony Korine’s tendency to thrust brutality at his audience (Spring Breakers, Kids) also surround this play. As the bodies pile up, it is difficult to come up with a firm thesis as to what the takeaway is. Lavinia Andronicus (Adrienne Jackson ’14) is the most obviously-wronged of the play’s victims and she is effectively silenced until she manages to gesture to the pages of Metamorphoses which detail “The Rape of Philomela.” Whale commented, “Everyone gets caught in the bloodshed, and hopefully we all question the wisdom of our bloodlust. Tarantino, too, magnifies the violence in his stories to an absurd scale, toeing the same line of ‘hard-to-watch’ and cathartic release to bring us to a new understanding of the horrors of slavery or the Nazis.” It is not so much a punishment for a gore-craving audience, as it is a confrontation of the way that violent functions in society — as something we bemoan but will not actually turn away from, be it for problem-solving or for entertainment.