Audience members in the front row of seats at “Titus Andronicus” may be surprised at the end of the play to see themselves spattered with blood. But perhaps they shouldn’t be. The Hyperion Shakespeare Company production—directed by Jacob A. Brandt ’14 and running through September 29 at the Loeb Ex is, after all, one of Shakespeare's darkest pieces.
“Titus” has always presented a problem for theater companies: to do Shakespeare justice requires a willingness to experiment with subtext and draw out his plays’ tragic and comic potential, but “Titus” is a distractingly graphic piece and does not lend itself easily to nuanced acting. However, this performance, while far from exploring the tragic nature of the play, distinguishes itself with an attention to the suggestive text, bringing out the dark humor of a piece that Shakespeare enthusiasts were historically slow to appreciate.
Dating from around 1593, “The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus” rivals even modern tales of violence for its blend of rage and sadistic deception. General Andronicus (Joshua G. Wilson ’13) returns to Rome having lost 21 of his sons in wars for his Empire, and in a moment of prideful vengeance executes the eldest son of Tamora (Sara S. Lytle ’13), the imprisoned queen of the Goths. Tamora sends two of her other sons Demetrius (Jesse T. Nee-Vogelman ’13) and Chiron (Sam B. Clark ’15) to get revenge on Titus and his family, with the assistance of her evil Moorish lover Aaron (Spencer J. Horne ’14). This leads Titus in turn to seek dangerous retributions.
The actors consistently struggle to bring the play’s tragic elements to the forefront. Wilson's displays of grief at seeing his children murdered and despoiled are disappointingly flat in the first acts. However, he is marvelously good at being evil. “You know,” he says to an advisary before cutting his throat, “your mother means to feast with me.” When Wilson combines these words—which in the original text might have appeared angry or coldly matter-of-fact—with a diabolical grin, maniacal dancing, and a singsong voice, he becomes at once truly chilling and unexpectedly funny. Wilson impresses with the complexity of his mixed bitterness and his amusement at the irony of his own position —once great defender of the just, now himself turned savagely destructive.
The ill-doers are especially charming here. Lytle is a superbly sensual Tamora; slithering and caressing as she curries favors from men, she brilliantly reveals the sexual undertones of the text. Horne, also an admirable villain, is probably the best of the show. He subtly balances an urbane understated contempt with remorseless glee in seeing victims fall for his machinations. But he also brings in a trace of human intellectual complexity that, in a play otherwise regarded as less than cerebral, is much appreciated. Horne’s meditative opening soliloquy as he sits suspended over Rome carries a Hamletian quality of profound contemplation.
There were several entertaining gems among the supporting parts as well. Titus’ mild brother Marcus (Aaron Graham-Horowitz ’15) is a funny foil for the violent displays of the others. A surly, strapping Saturninus (Caleb J. T. Thompson ’14, a Crimson arts writer) and benign Bassianus (Eli E. Kahn ’13), who each plead their side as contestants to the imperial throne, complement each other quite comically. Nee-Vogelman and Clark were uproariously iniquitous as the torturers of Titus’ hapless daughter Lavinia (Alice Abracen ’15).
In the set and costume designs, the show’s dark comic thread is cleverly enriched by references to various tropes in American culture. Isabel Strauss ’13’s stage design looks like a barnyard, with rows of huge crates taking up the entire left side of the stage. The Roman soldiers are in military camouflage, their swords supplanted by revolvers. The Emperor walks stoutly about in suspenders, and the Goths are now gothic teens with torn black T-shirts, studded skinny jeans, and Halloween-style scars. Brandt draws interesting parallels to modern day politics by dressing opposing actors in suits like modern election candidates, having them deliver speeches in their bids for the Roman throne. Sounds between scenes, in a similar fashion, alternated between surf music, 20’s style jazz, and horror-movie soundtracks, and were on the whole a bit distracting. But at their best, they highlighted the irony and enhanced the cruelly farcical center of the play.
While “Titus Andronicus” can be at once tragic and comic, unfortunately nobody in this performance comes near to showing a consistent understanding of real evil or grief. But the actors, to their credit, do enliven us with credibly irreverent re-imaginations of Shakespeare’s darker moments.