TAO does Titus Andronicus
reviewed by Alec Clayton
Theater Artists Olympia proudly proclaims on its website: “Olympia’s most adventurous theater company is tackling Shakespeare’s most controversial play, Titus Andronicus.” Director Pug Bujeaud calls Titus “Shakespeare’s most reviled play.” TAO thrives on blood, gore and controversy. They love tackling difficult plays, and they excel at physicality. This “most reviled” of Shakespeare’s plays is a natural fit for them.
More than any of Shakespeare’s plays Titus Andronicus is steeped in blood and gore. This play contains rape, murder and even cannibalism. It is not an easy play to put on, nor is it an easy play for people of tender sensibilities to watch. And the controversy surrounding Titus Andronicus is not just about the sex and violence.
From the introduction to Titus Andronicus in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare:
“The great majority of English critics either reject this play altogether… or accept as true the tradition of Ravenscroft, who altered the play in 1687, that “it was not his [Shakespeare’s],” but that he only gave “some master-touches to one or two of the principal parts or characters.” Says one critic: “This play is a perfect slaughter-house… It reeks blood, it smells, blood, we almost feel that we have handled blood—it is so gross.
“…If it is of Shakespearean authorship, it may be regarded as representing the years of crude and violent youth before he had found his true self; his second tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, as representing the years of transition; and Hamlet, the period of maturity and adult power.”
This is far from the bard’s best play. It lacks the complexity of plot and the poetry of his greatest works — most notably Hamlet, which I saw last week and reviewed for this blog. Titus the man is one-dimensional in comparison with the conflicted and deep-thinking Hamlet. But Titus the play, when presented as a fast-moving revenge story with lots of action, is riveting. And that is how Bujeaud and cast handle this production. The action is exciting, and the cast is outstanding.
In this version, the story is updated to the 1970s, and the characters are members of rival motorcycle gangs rather than Roman soldiers and Goths. The black leather and headbands and the projected images of contemporary settings add to the excitement, and I’m willing to overlook the obvious disconnect in doing Shakespeare in a contemporary setting—that they speak in the language of the 1600s while fighting with swords rather than guns and brass knuckles.
Titus (Brian Hatcher), a Roman general, has captured Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Samantha Camp). He has also captured her three sons and Aaron the Moor (Mark Peterson), who is Tamora’s lover. Although in love with Aaron, Tamora is forced to marry the Emperor Saturninus (personified as pure evil and ego by the amazing Brian Jansen) and she throws herself into her forced marriage with lustful abandon.
Titus has Tamora’s eldest son put to death, and she vows revenge, scheming with Aaron to have Titus’s two sons framed for the murder, for which crime they are beheaded. Tamora’s sons Chiron (Christopher Rocco) and Demetrius (Tim Samland) rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Priscilla Marie Zal)—with their mother’s blessing—after which they cut off her hands and tongue.
Hatcher is an intense and commanding presence as Titus, and Camp is simply amazing as Tamora — one of the two most captivating and complex characters in the play, the other being Saturninus. Both Camp and Jansen portray these characters with shouts and large gestures of unbridled passion, yet with nuanced expression. Their love scenes are like mutual rape.
Mark Peterson has a commanding presence. He portrays the heartless, one-dimensional Aaron as a character the audience can easily identify with. He makes this bad guy seem likeable.
Also amazing is Zal as Lavinia, who, in the beginning, is just as lustful as Tamora, but who becomes pitiable after her tongue is ripped out and her hands cut off. Thankfully, the audience is spared the mutilation of her body, but the spectacle of seeing her crawl out of a cage and fold in on herself in fear and pain after the rape and mutilation is heart wrenching and breathtaking.
Scene after scene erupts into orgies of sex, and there are fight scenes with up to 10 to 20 actors on stage at once, both of which go right up to the edge of being overbearing. The director walks a couple of tightropes in deciding how much sex and violence to show. The fight scenes choreographed by Christian Doyle are spectacular and overwhelming, but there is little blood; and we do not see the cutting off of hands but only the blood-soaked rags where hands used to be. And the sex scenes, while graphic, are brief and the lovers are fully clothed.
Titus Andronicus is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat play that’s definitely not for everyone.
Bikers Blood & the Bard
Theater Artists Olympia’s Titus Andronicus
The most expensive bottle of wine I’ve ever had was a Chateau Cabrieres Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 1961. At the time I enjoyed it, in the mid-1990s, I think it cost about $165.00. Conversely, the best wine I’ve ever had came from the Stone Hill winery in Herman, MO. It cost $12.00. When it comes to creation, love and passion beat a big budget, hands down. I have known Pug Bujeaud for many years and I have always thought she embodies this principle. She has directed and designed many theatrical productions, and I have long admired her ability to turn a modest space and shoestring budget into a full, rich world; a feast for the senses. Her secret isn’t really a secret. She loves theatre with her whole heart and mind. She surrounds herself with talented, dedicated people, and she studies her material with fervor and intensity, squeezing every drop of insight out of the script, subtext, life and times of the playwright and history of a play’s productions. With Theater Artists Olympia’s 2012 production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, she demonstrates a talent for outdoing herself, time after time. This production was magnificent.
Titus is often dismissed as one of Shakespeare’s weaker offerings. As Bujeaud observed in her notes, “It is considered an immature work of a young man.” This might be because the script is crammed with violence and gore. Historically, these elements have been toned down for the sake of the audience’s delicate sensibilities (completely missing the point of art in general and theater in particular). The result is, we are forced to take a tame, desensitized view of the work, and we miss the bulk of what Shakespeare must surely have been trying to say about lives lived at the edge of a blade, where virtually the only means of expression one has is violence.
The play is set during the war between the Romans and the Goths. Bujeaud’s insight was to turn these groups into biker clubs, full of disillusioned, disenfranchised veterans and their debauched, tawdry women. The use of 1970s rock music – most of it deftly performed live by Matt Ackerman on electric guitar – clever sound effects (entrances preceded and exits followed by the rumble of Harley engines, for example), stunning fight choreography and authentically detailed costumes all brought a rich realism to the production that enabled a complete suspension of disbelief. What really did the trick, however, was the unrelenting horror of the play’s inherent violence.
Titus’ world, whether imperial Rome or the milieu of the post-Viet Nam biker, is merciless. There is no room for pity or compassion, fortunes turn on the moment, and one is only as strong or as steady as one’s alliances. Acts of justice, betrayal and revenge are soaked in rivers of blood. Acute suffering is the inevitable way of things. This TAO production thrust that reality into the faces of the audience, as if grabbing us all by the hair and screaming, “Look! This is how we are! This is what we do!” I learned several in the cast and crew proudly kept track of the number of walk-outs over the production’s run (I believe it was up to eighteen on the night I attended). A production of Shakespeare that actually shows us what Shakespeare really wrote can be unsettling for those who like their art to be perfumed and sanitized.
The ensemble quality of the cast would surely be any producer’s dream. The sense that the tribal groups were families, and that they had been going through the cycle of warfare and revenge for untold long years was palpable. Brothers seemed like they genuinely grew up together. Rivals projected the extent and complexity of their rivalries. As friends became enemies the heartbreak of it filled the air. Every cast member appeared to have truly thrown her- or himself into the role, giving characters singular mannerisms and tics. Bonds made and broken felt crucial, critical, as if they would extend beyond the boundaries of the stage.
Brian Hatcher’s Titus grew twitchier and more manic as his sorrow- and drug-addled mind was taxed to its limit. He conveyed a simultaneous strength and weakness that was dumbfounding. Brian Jansen’s smug, swaggering Saturninus was archetypal. “I’m in charge now, so it’s my way or the highway.” He showed us a thick palooka who will readily be manipulated, as long as his…er…ego is stroked enough. Samantha Camp’s Tamora is a woman who has risen in power and influence by using the only tool she has at her disposal – her smoldering sexuality. She’s the bloodthirsty queen of all whores. Mark Petersen gave us an Aaron whose graceful slide from charming to heinous was pure ballet. He earned sympathy and admiration, then spat on them and laughed. Chiron (Christopher Rocco) and Demetrius (Tim Samland) were utter savages, communicating largely in grunts, growls and brute violence. Their sibling rivalry was wonderfully believable. Ryan Holmberg’s Lucius was outstanding as – to put it the way Holmberg said it to me – “the only character in the play who isn’t a complete bastard.” In fact, the whole cast embodied their roles with a joy and a passion that brought the play to life, but there was one performance that floored me. In a lifetime of love for the theatre, I have never come closer to leaping onto the stage and putting a stop to what was happening than when I witnessed the unbearable suffering of Lavinia, as portrayed by Priscilla Marie Zal. I felt my heart torn from my chest like Lavinia’s tongue was from her mouth. Zal showed us a woman who is utterly destroyed for little more than being in someone else’s way.
The great author Terry Pratchett observed that, “Treating things like they are people means you are crazy. Treating people like they are things means you are evil.” Titus Andronicus amply illustrates this premise, and TAO’s production of it was definitive, far and away the best production of the play I have ever been privileged to attend.