Titus Andronicus: Dissecting Human Suffering

Local Arts Reviews


Titus Andronicus: Dissecting Human Suffering

John Henry Faulk Living Theatre, through April 15

In Shakespeare in Love, Will Shakespeare encounters a boy outside his theatre feeding mice to a cat. The young torturer expresses his admiration for a certain play of Will's in which heads are cut off and a daughter is mutilated with knives. "When I write plays," the boy says, "they will be like Titus."

Though some call it the most appalling and awful of all the plays in the Shakespearean canon, Titus Andronicus was Shakespeare's most popular play during his lifetime (suggesting that sex and violence were just as popular four centuries ago as they are today). Watching the Disciples of Melpomene's production of Titus Andronicus is much like watching a lesson in anatomy -- albeit in silhouette (shadow images are used for the more gruesome scenes).

Director Marshall Ryan Maresca drapes the production in black and white, and begins the show with wild, warlike thuds -- drumming that echoes the jackhammers outside the theatre on Fourth Street. The set's starkness is effective at suggesting imperial Rome, but makes it difficult to appreciate the scenes of grief shared by Titus and his daughter as instances of a family tragedy.

This Titus is unlike any other Shakespeare I've seen. When the title character, who is Rome's most honored general, confronts the horrific fate of his children, he does not cry or curse. He laughs. Manic and crazed, Joel Crabtree plays this seeming incongruity well. Like the Elizabethans themselves, this Titus is not afraid to confront violence in ways that are simultaneously shocking and playful. Such a contrast may also be found in Dimitri Neonakis' Tamora, the queen of the Goths; she is imposing yet ostentatiously lustful. The wicked Aaron (a character who offers an early peek at Othello's Iago) also could have been a memorable figure in this way, but as portrayed by Shaun McDonald, he is more diabolic than playful; his attempt to make Tamora's sons accept a bastard child that endangers their own succession to the emperorship is not entirely convincing.

Overall, however, the company of 14 actors work well with the script they have been given, demonstrating that ancient stories can speak to modern times. They help make this production an exercise in highs and lows: the delightful savagery of the sons of a Goth and the solemnity shown toward the corpse of Titus by three generations of mourners: Marcus Andronicus, Titus' son Lucius, and Lucius' son, each in turn briefly kissing the dead patriarch one last time.

Titus Andronicus is not a pretty play. Though Maresca has rinsed off the blood and guts here, the tragedy still dissects human suffering and puts it on display. An audience can run or turn away its eyes. Or sob quietly about a man who has become a wolf to man.

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titus andronicus, disciples of melpomene, william shakespeare, marshall ryan maresca, joel crabtree, dimitri neonakis, shaun macdonald, austin theatre

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