Technically-Driven 'Titus' Takes Mainstage

Shakespeare was not in love when he wrote Titus Andronicus. That seems pretty obvious. He was probably in debt, though, and, at an aspiring 26, needed to attract attention and upstage his contemporaries to find some financial security. That is to say, he needed a slasher matinee, to appease the vile hoard.

Certainly, Titus fit the bill: an opera of horror and gore which features human sacrifice, gang rape, loping of limbs and feasts of filial sweetbreads. With the play, young Shakespeare scored a hit, proving that Elizabethan audiences were at least as bloodthirsty as the groundlings that hound present-day cineplexes.

So blood filled is Titus, in fact, that Yale humanistic-sage-in-residence Harold Bloom is convinced that it must be a parody of the works of Christopher Marlowe: sensationalistic, and rather less than poetic. “Shakespeare knew it was a howler,” Bloom has written, “and expected the more discerning to wallow in it self-consciously.”

Indeed, the play wastes little time in settling on its basic narrative unit of barbarity and misfortune: It barely gets started before Titus, a Roman army general, commands that the Goth queen Tamora’s eldest son be sacrificed to the memory of Titus’ own dead sons (all 21 of them). Quickly following this incident, Titus cuts down one of his few remaining sons, in a perhaps extreme display of patriarchal authority. And so we proceed, until the play’s infamously bizarre ending. Suffice it to say that there are lots of deaths, and none of them noble or beautiful. It is easy to see the necessity of “submitting” oneself to a plot so detached and hyperbolic. It is also easy to see why audiences that flock to the show have been known to leave Titus feeling bothered and bewildered, if not outright violated.

And yet, as surely as Shakespeare’s high comedies and great tragedies are the eternal flames of university seminars, there seems to be no getting rid of Titus. While critics have been lambasting, deriding and disowning the play for ages, few deny that it wields a kind of nasty power. Productions of Titus, from Peter Brooks’ over-stylized 1955 staging to Julie Taymor’s millennia-hopping 1995 Broadway version (preserved for posterity in her surreal, hilarious film adaptation of 1999), seem to be perpetually in vogue. And now a tough and towering Titus takes the Loeb Theater Mainstage on Friday for a two-week run.

Director Anthony J. Gabriele ’02 stresses that he’s worked hard to prevent his version from “feeling derivative”, or, in other words, overly reminiscent of productions past. What good old-fashioned Shakespeare buff, reared on Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar, would have imagined that Titus Andronicus might run the risk of feeling stale?

Whatever one expects from this Titus, however, it certainly should not be the same-old. Gabriele, who has worked on over fifteen Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club shows and directed last semester’s Oleanna in the Loeb Experimental Theater, wants his production to impress. “Really, I’d like this show to be very powerful, to feel very real. [For example], there’s a lot of misery in this play, a lot of death, and the deaths have to feel real. If the audience perceives even one death as ‘theatrical,’ I’ll pretty much have failed.”

Gabriele has a hefty background in sound design and an approach to theater that he calls “more aesthetic and visually conscious than many, particularly undergraduate directors,” Gabriele’s skills are suited to craft theater experiences that utilize the stage resources to their fullest and should, therefore, be quite at home in the expansive and technically well-stocked Mainstage space.

And, as he is the sort of director that would rather leave people stunned in their seats than floating into the brisk April eve, he has chosen a play packs a visceral wallop. Though visual-heavy, “conceptual” treatments have a way of wreaking havoc on Shakespeare’s artful texts, Titus, which joyfully flaunts its aesthetic flaws, may be the Bard’s only play that actually demands high production values.

To this end, Gabriele is working closely with an experienced and collaborative crew, many of them veterans of main stage productions, to create a stage environment that staff members variously term “meta-worldly,” “post-apocalyptic,” “deteriorating,” “impressionistic,” “grandiose.”

Original music for the show, composed by Immediate Gratification Players keyboardist Matt O’Malley ’04 and implemented with the help of the show’s four drummers, will serve to sustain and heighten the themes of primitivism and desperation that run throughout the show.

Prolific campus choreographer Ryuji Yamaguchi ’03 is also contributing several scenes of abstract movement and has helped the actors achieve greater ease and control of their stage movement. And, as befits a bloodbath of a play, there will be lots of fake blood, courtesy of blood-designer par excellence Katie Heller ’02.

Impressive as Titus promises to look, however, there always lingers the significant possibility of falling prey to a text that remains clumsy in spite of its gripping plot. Critics have long noted that the characters in Titus are palpably estranged from the audience, despite the horrors the plot wreaks upon them. Bloom wrote, “Everything and everyone on stage is very remote from us,” the steely Titus most of all. If the characters lie outside the audience’s capacity for empathy, no matter how thrilling to the senses it is, it will remain emotionally unsatisfying.

To his credit, Gabriele is aware of these potential pitfalls regarding Titus. He knows that a play set in an unfamiliar time and filled with irrational, sometimes cartoonish, and traditionally unsympathetic characters, has the potential to alienate and confuse an audience. Accordingly, he sees the challenge he feels he has to ride up to meet: to bridge the gulf between audience and story, to render the fantastic experiences of his characters immediate, accessible, and effecting.

“I want it to hit people hard. I want them to say, ‘wow…I can’t empathize with these people, I don’t know what killing a son feels like, but…wow.”