By William Shakespeare
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Christopher Scheeren, Danny Binstock, Chris Genebach as Lu David Murgittroyd as Martius and Sam Tsoutsouvas as Titus in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, directed by Gale Edwards. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
"If I had a choice between betraying my country and betraying my friend," E.M. Forster once wrote, "I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." It is Rome, during the final stages of the Western Empire. The great Roman general Titus Andronicus (Sam Tsoutsouvas) is back from his successful war against the Goths, having lost the staggering total of twenty-one of his own sons in battle. Against this heartbreaking deprivation, Titus is stoic: "sleep in peace, slain in your country’s wars!" He gives the benediction, and they are buried in the family tomb.
In reprisal, Titus’ eldest son Lucius (Chris Genebach) demands the sacrifice of the eldest son (Matthew Stucky) of the Goth Queen Tamora (a powerful Valerie Leonard). Deaf to the mother’s pleading, Titus orders the young man’s dismemberment, and hauls the remainder of the captured Goths to an uncertain fate in Rome.
He arrives in a leaderless Capitol. The old Emperor is dead (although a portrait of his troubled, hectic eyes, blown up a thousand times, oversees all of the action) and his two sons, Saturninus (Alex Podulke) and Bassianus (Michael Brusasco) contend for his diadem. Although the people of Rome clearly wish Titus himself to become Emperor, and although between the two declarants Bassianus is obviously better qualified by temperament and virtue, Titus urges the City to accept Saturninus, since he is the elder and by tradition should rule. Titus is persuasive, and in reward the newly-crowned Emperor requires Titus’ beautiful daughter Lavinia (Colleen Delany) as his wife. Although Lavinia is betrothed to Bassianus and has little enthusiasm for becoming the Empress, Titus is pleased to give her up to the Emperor. When she later escapes with her fiancée with the help of her remaining brothers, Titus kills one of his dwindling stock of sons (Danny Binstock), for defiance to the Emperor and to himself. The Emperor, in the face of Lavinia’s disdain, marries instead the astonished Tamora, who with her lover, the brilliant Moor Aaron (Peter Macon), immediately plots revenge against Rome, and particularly Titus.
Titus Andronicus, like King Lear, is the story of a foolish old man for whom the moral order has been turned upside down. In the case of Titus, the story is even more painful and, oddly, more familiar. Titus stands for every person who has lived for another, only to be betrayed: the executive who has devoted his life to his business, only to see himself thrown out after a merger; the minister, devoting a lifetime to her church, only to see her religion made shallow and meaningless by the church’s decision-makers; the soldier who has gladly given up an arm or a leg in service to his country, only to see himself ignored and mistreated at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
Lear, as punishment for his false beliefs, is forced to wander in the wilderness without his armies or his crown. He loses his mind. Here’s what happens to Titus: his beautiful daughter is raped. The rapists cut off her hands and pluck out her tongue, so that she will be unable to reveal their identities. Her husband is murdered, and Titus’ two sons (Christopher Scheeren and David Murgittboyd) are blamed for it. Titus himself is tricked into allowing his hand to be severed.
At this point you may be checking the beginning of this review to verify the name of the playwright. But Shakespeare indeed wrote it, and, as the excellent program notes point out, it was his most popular play during his lifetime. Titus Andronicus is a Grand Guignol of blood, death, and severed body parts. Whatever gruesome, violent thing you can imagine happening in a play, it, and worse, is here.
In these sophisticated days, it would be easy for this play to slip into bathos, and to miss Shakespeare’s radically subversive point. It is only because of the extraordinary intelligence and restraint of the actors and in particular Director Gale Edwards that this Titus is never anything but a tragedy throughout. Tsoutsouvas starts slowly in the title role, giving us an inaccessible General, tight as he can be, but by the time he relents to allow the son he killed to be buried in the family tomb, we begin to understand what his blind loyalty to Rome has cost him, and to intuit what it will cost him yet. He unwinds – unspools might be a better word – at the pace of a body falling to earth, but at the final moment, when his enemies seek to bring him down with a plot which takes advantage of his madness, he deftly steps away, and exacts his own unappetizing revenge. Tsoutsouvas does this all convincingly, and with great agility; in the end, his Titus, whatever his faults, is human like us, and we are moved by what happens to him.
Titus’ countervailing forces – his brother Marcus, who urges reason upon him, and his son Lucius, who moves him forward – are nicely presented by William Langan and Genebach, respectively.
In this excellent cast, a few performances are particularly noteworthy. Podulke takes the trouble to make Saturninus transparent to us. Face shimmering with flop sweat as he addresses the crowd; eyes darting from side to side when he sees things slipping away from him, Podulke gives us a portrait of a man whom fear has made a tyrant. Aaron the Moor is one of Shakespeare’s great creations and Macon is equal to the task. From the very first moments, as Tamora’s firstborn is led off to execution, Macon’s searchlight-like eyes burn with a nuclear fire, and we know that Aaron will be doing some very bad things, and it will make him happy to do them. Finally, Delany did extraordinarily well as the stricken Lavinia: robbed of her tongue, she spoke volumes.
As usual for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the setting served the production well. Peter England’s stage is a marvel of economy; it has some extraordinary effects (the forest is a great achievement) but there is nothing to distract from the story. Martin Desjardins’ mordant original compositions insinuate themselves into the story when we need to hear them; they help us feel the hollowing of Titus’ heart.
In all this fine production, there is only one bothersome note, but it is significant enough that I am compelled to mention it. The production’s unfortunate decision to represent Aaron’s newborn infant with some sort of plastic or rubber doll is distracting from the moment it is introduced. There is no really good way to put a baby on stage but using a hunk of plastic from K-Mart is simply not the way to go. The baby is an immensely important development; it gives nobility to the otherwise ravenous Aaron. The silent, inert object in Aaron’s hands is an impediment to that objective. At first I thought the child might be dead, and then I realized that it was plastic. Neither thought was good for the production.
But let’s not close on this low note. This is a rich, deep, excellent production; an honest and exciting presentation of a powerful Shakespeare play.
(Running time: 2:15 with 1 intermission) Titus Andronicus, continues Tuesdays through Sundays until May 20. Performance times: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7.30 pm; Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows at 8 pm. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2, and a noon matinee on Wednesday, May 16. There are no 7.30 shows on April 10 or May 20. Tickets range from $10 to $76.25 and may be had at 202.547.1122 or www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.