More politics than Caesar, intrigue than Macbeth, madness than Lear, racism than Othello, petards than Hamlet, and victim-blaming than Winter’s Tale. Theatricum Botanicum‘s boisterous, unsparing staging of ‘Titus Andronicus’ delivers the goods to those with constitutions strong enough to handle the carnage. This is early Shakespeare, possibly a collaboration, introducing themes that would be fully developed in future standalone plays. The plot: Vanquished Queen Tamora of the Goths is elevated to stature in her captor’s country and takes her revenge from within.
‘Titus’ has had a checkered history and isn’t produced nearly as often as his other tragedies. The savagery and gore make it hard to stage and equally hard to stomach. The open-air setting alleviates what could be a claustrophobic experience in a traditional venue. Director Ellen Geer smartly associates perpetual war, double standards, backroom dealings, fluid loyalties, and mindless violence in fictional Rome to the present day. Her cast of the usual family members, friends, and newcomers offers unusual depth in difficult roles. Melora Marshall and Willow Geer adeptly play male roles renamed and reworked for women. Geer the younger, usually at her best in comedy, ratchets up to play Lucia, one of Titus’s soldier children who stays just one step ahead of the slaughters. Sheridan Crist nicely handles Titus’s descent from conquering hero to loyal subject to madness.
The blood flows early, it flows freely, and a good chunk of the rough stuff is in plain view. The company is known for its anti-war stance yet is quite sympathetic to soldiers who are mustered into battles of questionable value or sense. As Titus is pushed lower and lower by the state he served, two of his sons are framed for murder, and he offers his hand in a futile attempt to ransom their lives. Lavinia, his favorite daughter, is stalked, raped, and mutilated by Queen Tamora’s own two sons. Lavinia begs Tamora to call off the attack only to have the mother egg her boys on. It is as pitiless and merciless as anything in the repertoire including Sarah Kane’s Blasted or Jacqueline Wright’s Eat Me and mesmerizingly played by Michelle Wicklas and Marie-Françoise Theodore. And there would it sit except for Michael McFall’s rich, resonant turn as Aaron, Tamora’s lover, the inciter of all the mischief, and the embodiment of pure, unrepentant evil. McFall keeps his proudly unredeemable character center-stage and on a fine dramatic edge – oozing hate, lust, and vengeance without once overplaying it.
The production values are well-designed to set off the gore. The costumes and sets are relatively spare but the stumps and blood inevitably draw the eye. The performers move throughout the audience and those on the aisles will see it close-up. The cast mostly avoid overemoting although a couple of scenes generated unintended laughter due to assorted staging choices. Marshall McDaniel and Ian Flanders’s eerie scene-intro soundscapes got lost in the wash of opening night conversations but what did leak through heightened the experience.
It is easy to wonder about the setup: How does a spoil of war get into a position to cause such damage? The allegory to modern times answers it. The powerful look the other way and take care of their own, then as now. It also raises the uncomfortable question of whether it is a good idea to show any mercy to a defeated enemy, no matter how just or unjust the war.
in repertory through 25 September 2016
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N Topanga Cyn Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290
Season Brochure: http://theatricum.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/2015Brochure.pdf
BOX OFFICE 310-455-3723
Tickets online at http://theatricum.com/tickets/