At a time when Halloween looms, when the most popular TV show is “The Walking Dead,” and when gory films reign at movie theaters, it may seem the right time to restage William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. It was by far his bloodiest play, and the poster for the new U.S. Naval Academy Masquerader’s production in Annapolis pictures the title hero drenched in blood, as if after a particularly sanguine apple bobbing.
Titus is also widely considered Shakespeare’s worst play by some measure — more akin to the savage “revenge” plays of the day than the lyric historical plays yet to come. There is also some question as to his full authorship.
The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, as it was originally titled, went unproduced for centuries until it was revived in the 20th century in various stagings. Still, its name is better known to some today as that of a rock band, which in fact, just swung through Washington, D.C. last week while on tour. But the reason some gave for the revival in the 20th century of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was that its grotesque acts of violence were, sadly, not so different from the atrocities of modern age.
Masquerader’s director Christy Stanlake has been known to choose works that reflect modern life and nudge social change. Just as Stanlake, who is also a theater professor at the academy, commented on burgeoning female leadership in the armed forces when staging George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan some years back, her selection of Titus Andronicus is framed as a portrait of “a battle-hardened veteran returning home to a turbulent political environment.” The war-wariness of the title character, if not his madness, is tied to the redeployment he had to endure.
Adding to this modern light, the audience is encouraged at times to participate, according to a notation in the program. “Cheer for your favorite candidate. This is an election year!” (They complied).
And they do so, as the play begins with the sons of the newly deceased Roman Emperor, Saturninus and Bassianus, campaign for the title in an arena not so different than the one used in recent presidential debates. The two are told by the tribune — Marca, a female instead of the text’s Marcus, in one of Stanlake’s other big changes — that the returning war hero Titus was the people’s choice for the throne. But once he arrives, with prisoners in tow, heavy of heart at having lost 21 sons in the 10-year war, Titus says he is not up for the leadership role.
Still a warrior, though, he kills a son of his prisoner, Tamora, Queen of Goths, to atone for his own considerable losses. Thus begins the play’s ghastly chain of revenge and counter revenge.
While never quite as bloody as advertised (the website has a graph of theatrical blood used in the production — up to five gallons by opening night), there are surprising bursts of red from bags concealed under robes or carefully hidden crimson limbs suddenly exposed.
Some of the deaths occur offstage, only to have evidence of the skewering brought back on stage like so much meat on a plate. In one chilling scene, Titus offers to have his hand cut off to save the lives of his two sons. It is summarily chopped off, but he is double-crossed: He is presented with their severed heads.
This happens at about this time he learns the fate of his daughter Lavinia, who was brutally raped, her hands cut off and her tongue cut off as well. This is enough to drive Titus over the edge and toward his own path of madness, which includes more killings and the feeding of two dead sons to their unwitting mother.
It’s a gruesome sight, with two characters left to gesticulate with stumps, one of them unable to speak at all. At the same time, one must wonder if this is the most tasteful choice for a play at a time when thousands of U.S. troops have lost limbs in its own 10-year war and continue to do so at a rate of about 20 a month. Or is this play, like violent video games or zombie movies, meant to take one’s mind away from such realities?
Certainly staging Shakespeare’s most violent play within the confines of a United States military academy at a time of war makes its own statement.
But Titus raises a couple of other prickly issues that may make a modern audience cringe. With rape becoming an unlikely issue in the current campaign cycle, with apologies made for the clumsiest of statements none have been as repugnant as Titus’ solution when he learns his daughter has been raped: Kill her.
And then there is the issue of race, as the most evil character in the play is also the only black one, and his blackness is forever equated with his evil, even by the character, as seen in the off-putting couplet: “Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace. Aaron will have his soul black like his face.” Ok then.
Taken as a whole, Titus Andronicus doesn’t have the pacing or poetry we’d come to expect from the Bard. Still, the production gets an energetic performance from the young cast.
Part of the problem is that the cast is so young — everyone refers to Titus as an old man, and he’s meant to be run down by a decade of war as well. Michael McPherson, however, bursts into the role with considerable vitality; the grey sprayed-on his hair isn’t fooling anyone. The fact they’re all midshipmen means they are necessarily clean shaven, though a beard or some dirty faces might have better conveyed a rough ten years at war.
Katie MacVarish as Lavinia has a lot to do to retain dignity to her severely mutilated character and succeeds. Jenn Underhill is a standout as the tribune Marca, adding humanity to the role written as Marcus.
Jamie Moroney has just the right combination of domineering and seduction to earn her crown as the Queen of a Goths, a role for which her tattoos fit as well. And for all the awful things he has to say and do, Michael Foster is a commanding presence on stage as Aaron.
The whole ensemble does its job well, though there is a tendency for soldiers to fall into the trap of bellowing their lines as if it will infuse the 400 year old words with passion.
Stanlake’s staging is inventive, with characters not only on a thrust from the stage to address the audience, but sometimes in the rows of seats themselves, extending ancient Rome to the entire theater space.
The costumes by Richard Montgomery and Bonnie Jarrell seem fitting in their combination of unusual textures, both ancient and very new.
The new also invades the set, when a ladder is jarringly brought on at one point.
The central part of Montgomery’s set is a ring of sand, which has the ability to be handy burying ground, a blood blotter and a place where the voiceless Lavinia can scratch out her messages.
Most of all, it strikingly creates another effect: The more soldiers stomp around, the more the theater slowly fills with a dusty cloud.
And beneath the murky clouds, connections are made between the horrors of the ancient world and those of the dark present, making Titus Andronicus scarier, in a way that has nothing to do with Halloween.
Running Time: Two hours, 45 minutes, with a ten-minute intermission.
Titus Andronicus by the U.S. Naval Academy Masqueraders, runs through Nov. 4, 2012 at the Mahan Theatre on the U.S. Navy Academy, 107 Maryland Ave., Annapolis. Remaining showtimes are Nov. 2 and 3 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 4 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 and available at 410-293-TIXS or click here.