By Vicki Weisfeld
This riveting new production, directed by Brian B. Crowe, opened July 21 and runs through August 5 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. First performed January 24, 1594, it was one of the revenge dramas so popular among Elizabethan audiences, and this play clearly portrays, the theater says, “a society drowning in violence and seemingly bereft of civil thought or action.” It’s well worth seeing, not just because the opportunity comes about so rarely and not just because of Shakespeare’s thought-provoking content, but also because of the high quality of this production. The acting and production values are top-notch.
In some ways, the plot evokes the implacable gods of Greek tragedy, here manifested in the unswerving determination of family members to revenge their wronged kin. Indeed, the desire for revenge trumps every other human feeling. There is no possibility of compromise or negotiation. Such intransigence has echoes in our lives today.
The heroic title character (played by Bruce Cromer) returns to Rome from his conquest of the Goths accompanied by prisoners in chains: the Goths sultry queen Tamora (Vanessa Morosco), her three sons, and her advisor, a moor (Chris White). In Rome, brothers Saturninus (Benjamin Eakeley) and Bassianus (Oliver Archibald) vie to replace their late father, the emperor. Given the opportunity to choose between them, Titus chooses Saturninus, who proceeds to claim his brother’s betrothed, Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Fiona Robberson). Skirmishes break out, but Lavinia and Bassianus flee.
Two of Titus’s sons were killed in the war, and the remaining sons demand the sacrifice of Tamora’s eldest son, despite her pleas. Though she speaks honeyed words to Saturninus, her desire for revenge against Titus and all his children is clear.
The moor connives with Tamora’s remaining sons (Torsten Johnson and Quentin McCuiston) to kill Lavinia’s new husband, ravish her, and, so that she can’t reveal their identity, cut off her hands and cut out her tongue. Titus has lost five sons in the play so far, and his last son Lucius (Clark Scott Carmichael) is banished. He is devastated to see the wreck of his daughter. Only the counsel and forbearance of his brother Marcus (Robert Cuccioli) saves him from total madness.
Before the play opens, a trio of street cleaners sweeps the stage, creating piles of large confetti. White confetti is used in the production to represent ashes, silver to represent celebration, and red to represent blood. Not Shakespeare’s creation, but a feature of this production, the street-sweepers are more than a way to have something doing on stage before the play begins, cleaning (and cleansing) is a metaphor for the whole of the action.
Near the end of the play Marcus has a speech that for me was the most thought-provoking and relevant to politics in our era: “O! let me teach you how to knit again this scatter’d corn into one united sheaf, these broken limbs again into one body; lest Rome herself be bane unto herself, and she whom mighty kingdoms curtsy to, like a forlorn and desperate castaway, do shameful execution on herself.”
Fine performances from Cromer as Titus, Cuccioni as Marcus, Morosco as Tamora, and her two reptilian sons (Johnson and McCuiston). For me, though, the most moving performance came from Robberson, the handless, tongueless, young widow. She is heartbreaking. And White delivers the evil moor with relish. Almost a rarity these days, the principal cast is luxuriously large—16 actors—ably augmented by 11 members of the theater’s 2018 Summer Professional Training Program in multiple roles.
Dick Block created a strikingly memorable set, featuring giant swords and an enormous warrior’s helmet, fallen to the ground. Lighting by Andrew Hungerford; costumes by Yao Chen; sound design by Karin Graybash; and fight direction, Rick Sordelet.
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!