By William Shakespeare
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Intiman Theatre
201 Mercer Street, Seattle, WA 98109/ (206) 269-1900

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

The first problem with "Titus Andronicus" is in knowing just how to take it. On one hand, it's so excessive in the sheer quantity of its gore, in the number of murders, mutilations, rapes, tortures and betrayals, that it becomes comic. On the other hand, there is a powerful story, in the Roman revenge-tragedy mode, of the spiraling horror of bloody retribution, and the social and moral cost of cruelty and deception. It is a world where "justice has relinquished the Earth".

In this production, director Bartlett Sher tries to have it both ways, and the result is an aesthetic dissonance that neither moves us to the realm of tragedy, nor amuses us to the point where our disquieted laughter feels appropriate. Some very solid performances are not enough to compensate for a rather hollow interpretation of Titus himself, and a very dubious shift to modern comedy in the play's final scene subverts what drama had previously been legitimized.

Assuming that Shakespeare's intention is tragedy, it seems to me that the play's blood and gore is as much metaphorical as actual. The death of sons, at first wreathed in admirable sacrifice, becomes senseless as soon as Titus returns to Rome, to civilization. Each bloodletting becomes successively less meaningful. Pieces of people, literally, become mere tokens, leaving each victim a lesser person. That the innocent Lavinia is raped, and then has both hands cut off, and her tongue torn out, seems to me an intentional symbol of the desecration, disabling and voicelessness visited on all victims of war, whether military, political or social.

I think Titus himself asks the question of what happens when a noble general, accustomed to the horror and bloodshed of the battlefield, finds himself utterly unequipped to deal with the duplicity and viciousness of civil society? He attempts to do battle in the manner he always has, but there are no longer honorable enemies, none of the loyalty and devotion to duty that can give even the insanity of war some kind of meaning.

As Titus, Steve Tague lacked the stature, the gravitas, that the role requires. I believed he was a soldier, but not a general, a veteran of combat and loss, but not a man who had given scores of his own sons willingly, so long as they died with honor. This Titus seemed like a man rather adrift in new circumstance, rather than one for whom familiar tactics tragically fail. And as the costs of each death and each betrayal mount, he seemed more ambushed than surrounded. While he spoke his lines very well, I just didn't believe this was a man for whom blood and dirt and pain are the givens of daily life. He seemed less like a warrior than an angry plaintiff.

In contrast, Allen Gilmore played Aaron, a Moor, with such passion and intensity that he seemed to brandish death like claws. With his stunning physique and animal movement, he had the lethal threat of a jaguar, all the intelligence and cunning of a predator who knows everything about the terrain and his prey. That same depth and complexity also enriched the role of Tamora, played with authority by Kathleen Pirkl Tague. Given the substantial, intelligent performance of Laurence Ballard as Titus' brother Marcus Andronicus, a strikingly effective Bassianus played by Peter Crook, and an affecting, smartly crafted performance by Kristen Flanders as the despoiled Lavinia, Titus came out rather pale and ineffectual. That's a pretty big problem for the character at the center of the drama.

It also left open a comedic response to the absurd extent of the bloodshed. I believe the intention is not to become ridiculous, but to deliver us to madness. Some lines that seem like nonsense may in fact be insanity reaching for meaning as all the world around becomes increasingly demented. I think it's either horrific or ridiculous, but if it tries to be both one loses the aesthetic unity of the play. I think that's what happened here.

Through the first act, the style was quite straightforward, actor and text, with the occasional touches of contemporary props, and the neon and industrial set by Deborah Jensen. Peter John Still composed a sound design, primarily for drums, which clearly established this was a drama of thunder and pounding events. Christopher Akerlind contributed an inventive and accomplished lighting design. Mr. Sher let the play itself display its parallels to our world, and its relevance was riveting.

Then, in the final act, we have a sudden intrusion of modern devices and intentions. A fantastical scene where the embodiments of Revenge, Murder and Rape appear is enhanced with an echoed mic. A freezer appears on stage, along with Titus wearing a chef's outfit for the final banquet. That final banquet was, for me, the thing that really subverted the play. Suddenly we were somewhere between Monty Python and Sweeney Todd, and people were laughing derisively at the play's most horrific action. For me, it was a disastrous choice, and finally undid what had been a reasonably successful production. "Titus Andronicus" may be lesser Shakespeare, and a difficult play to appreciate in an Elizabethan context, let alone our own. But with each day's news of the Middle-East, for example, its weaknesses seem mean and degraded in important ways that parallel our own world. This production, like Titus, seemed to lose its moral compass, and wandered adrift in its own carnage. In the end, it all seemed like too much Halloween, and not enough nightmare.

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