Review by Tulis McCall
Titus Andronicus is a bear of a production. Pound for pound it is stacked with more bodies and body parts than all of Shakespeare combined. Because of the non-stop emphasis on killing, maiming and even rape, this play requires a delicate touch. Under the direction of Ross Williams, the Shakespeare Exchange makes a valiant effort that does not quite connect.
Titus Andronicus (Brendan Averett) returns home from battle with the Goths as prisoners. Tamora the Queen (Greetchen Egolf) and her two sons Demetrius (Nathaniel P. Claridad) and Chiron (Ethan Itzkow) are devoted to cutting a wide swath through Rome. Actually they are not alone. It seems everyone wants everyone harmed. Saturninus (Vince Gatton), the new Emperor of Rome, first chooses Lavinia (Kate Lydic) Titus’ daughter as his bride. But when it is discovered that she loves his brother, Bassianus, (Adam Kezele), Saturninus reluctantly gives Lavinia up. Instead he welcomes Tamora as his Queen, which is all she needs to put her many plans into motion.
The Queen’s lover, Aaron – a Moor – (Warren Jackson) persuades her sons to kill Bassianus and abduct Lavinia, rape her, cut off her hands and remove her tongue as retribution to Titus. A forged letter tells the Emperor that Titus’ sons killed Bassianus. They are taken prisoner and notice sent to Titus that he must surrender one of his hands to save his sons. He does, and soon the heads of the sons as well as his severed hand are returned – in one of the few and oddly comic scenes that works.
Titus sends his son Lucius to raise an army among the Goths and besiege Rome. Tamora gives birth to a baby by Aaron – which means trouble in River City. Aaron steals the baby to save it. Tamora and her sons appear as evil spirits who will avenge Titus if he calls off Lucius. He promises to do so, but instead kills the two sons, drains their blood and bakes them into a pie to serve Tamora and Saturninus. This is after he has himself killed his daughter Lavinia. Everyone kills everyone in the end, the knife flowing from one hand to the other until only Marcus Andronicus (Terrence McSweeny), the brother of Titus, is left standing.
Sorry if you got lost in the above – but that is why this play is a bear. The violence comes so fast that there is nary moment for anticipation. It was a disappointment that, instead of guiding us along this path, this cast – with a few exceptions – is heavy handed. The lines are blurted out without nuance and give the impression of a line rehearsal rather than a performance. There are gaffs in pronunciation “obsequs” instead of “obsequious” and the night I saw this production it seemed that some of the actors were uncertain of their lines. Monologues are delivered with great sturm and drang, relying on movement rather than the text itself. And if Shakespeare is about anything – it is the magical weaving of his words.
As I said this is an enthusiastic cast, and everyone gives their all. In particular, Kerry Kastin as the Clown glides in and out of each scene as a chorus, playing many parts with ease. Gretchn Egolf brings a fine-tuning to the Queen, alternating between evil and near caricature.
Jason Lajka’s stage design of a sideshow is a clever idea, but the awkward presence of a needed pit in the first act, around which the actors must navigate, is a problem. In addition because the platforms are hollow there is a sound echo whenever anyone takes a heavy step.
All in all this makes for a long, long evening. The characters are one dimensional with the result that the violence, at the center of this story, never engages the viewer. Mr. Williams’ direction clearly has vision and forethought. The execution, however, misses the desired mark.
TITUS ANDRONICUS by William Shakespeare, Adapted and Directed by Ross Williams, presented by New York Shakespeare Exchange is at the Main Stage Theater at HERE (145 6th Avenue; enter on Dominick, 1 Block South of Spring).
TITUS ANDRONICUS begins performances on Thursday, January 22 for a limited engagement through Sunday, February 8. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Saturday at 8:30 PM; Sunday at 4 PM (Please note, there is an added performance on Monday, January 26 at 8:30 PM; there are no performances on Saturday, January 24 or Tuesday, January 27 at 8:30 PM. The regular ticket price is $18. For tickets, call OvationTix on 212-352-3101 or visit www.here.org. For more information, visit www.shakespeareexchange.org.