Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Jan. 16, 2004
Austin Playhouse, through Jan. 23
Running Time: 2 hrs., 15 min.
There are people who have read everything that Shakespeare wrote, but you can be a Shakespeare fan without having done that. After all, Shakespeare wrote some really ineffective stuff. (Can you say Troilus and Cressida?) Some people might tell you that Titus Andronicus belongs in that low category, but there's no accounting for taste. I'm certain that some people love Troilus and Cressida (though, to my knowledge, I've never met any), just like some people love Titus Andronicus. Count me among the latter.
Titus was popular in its day at least partly because it was a revenge tragedy, and Elizabethan audiences loved revenge tragedies. It focuses on the Roman warrior Titus, returning victorious from a war with the Goths, with Goth queen Tamora and her sons as prisoners. Titus makes the cruel decision to sacrifice Tamora's eldest in order to appease the gods, and when the newly crowned emperor Saturninus makes the questionable decision to wed Tamora, the fate of everyone concerned is sealed.
Austin Shakespeare Festival is presenting this production in repertory with The Winter's Tale, another of Shakespeare's "lesser" plays, in what it's calling "Bare Bard" versions -- in other words, with minimal sets, props, and costumes. It's a good gimmick, but then Shakespeare's intent was that his plays be performed simply. He wrote them that way because often, when the plague shut down the theatres in London, his plays had to tour -- in horse-drawn wagons.
Shakespeare also used anachronisms in his writing, so it was pleasant and refreshing to see director Elena Manuela Araoz cleaving to the very bosom of Shakespeare with armor covering the army fatigues of the soldiers, a bare stage for most of the play, and red rags, glitter, and rose petals substituting for gallons of blood. While Araoz has cut the text radically, she's cut it well, and she stages it well, moving the actors when necessary and keeping them still when appropriate. Add to this some fine performances -- especially by Blake Anthony DeLong as Saturninus, Michael David Walton as the seemingly psychopathic Moor Aaron, and especially Patricia Pearcy as Tamora -- and it's easy to see that the production has much to recommend it.
One of the problems -- perhaps the major one -- that people have with Titus is what has come to be known as its comic tone, that is, the violence in the play that is taken to an extreme that seems almost absurd and intentionally comic. This is, I believe, more a problem of modern people looking backward at something from another age; for the Elizabethans, for whom having their severed heads displayed on pikes along London Bridge was a very real possibility, the violence portrayed in Titus couldn't have been a laugh riot. While Titus does contain some extremely funny moments, ultimately there's nothing funny about it. Araoz approaches the "comic tone" problem like this: The first act is played as "tragedy," complete with classical music during the scene changes; the second is played as "comedy," with modern, up-tempo scoring. The actors seem to follow right along, playing up the tragedy and comedy in the successive acts, but once actors start playing the "quality" of something, humanity often disappears: the humanity of the characters, who become cardboard cutouts, and of the audience, who are used to the violence of cartoons and space-opera science fiction and respond accordingly. The result, in both cases, is something less than human. For me, what's portrayed in Titus is an unfortunate but nevertheless archetypal human situation: One country makes war on another, and the country under siege vows revenge. Recognize it? With Titus, I'd rather be allowed to care than just be entertained.