Trust me, you do not want the job of cleaning the stage after performances of Titus Andronicus at the Public Theater. Or laundering the costumes. Can you say blood-soaked? Shakespeare’s first-written tragedy is a gory affair that leaves little to the imagination, and the Public’s production goes The Bard one better.
The play is among the least produced of Shakespeare’s, due partly to its unrelenting carnage. It is so gruesome, in fact, that for centuries scholars were reluctant to credit it to Shakespeare. From its first recorded performance in 1594, however, the “revenge tragedy” became an immediate hit. (Some tastes never change.)
Everyday, run-of-the-mill murder is the least of the offenses in Titus Andronicus, and while the play explores universal concepts of scheming and corruption that accompany military might and political power, it is the symphony of violence that grips audiences.
On a stage bare but for a stack of double-ply four-by-eights that serve as coffins and macabre drawing boards, that symphony is here played as by a brass band. It’s in-your-face, unremitting, which, admittedly, is exciting.
The human sacrifice of a captured Goth soldier by Roman General Titus Andronicus sparks a horrific cycle of revenge, set in motion by Tamora, that soldier’s mother, who becomes Queen. A consummate conniver, she presents a regal face, while her true intent is in the aside “I’ll find a way to massacre them all.”
It is more than an idle threat. Abetted by her henchman and lover Aaron the (Black) Moor, they instigate a boundless series of tortures and killings. The violation and mutilation of Titus’s daughter Lavinia by Tamora’s two sons takes savagery to an unimaginable (except by Shakespeare) level, and the revenge enacted against those sons and their mother further tests the limits. (Titus isn’t the good guy either. Early on, he kills his own son for blocking his way – for blocking his way!)
Titus is the nominal lead character, but several juicy (a macabre pun) roles overshadow even the fine Jay O. Sanders, whose bushy beard obscures what I’m sure are some well-acted flashes of anguish. Jennifer Ikeda’s Lavinia breaks your heart; Stephanie Roth Haberle is a dark Witch-Queen; and Ron Cephas Jones is a repellent, reptilian Aaron. (Jones profits most from the production’s modern dress; Aaron in a sleek black business suit? Scary.)
Director Michael Sexton is bent on displaying the abject violence, and it is well staged. Folks are run through, throats are slit and heads are lopped off in plain sight, while sacks of blood gush over the casualties. (The savaging of Lavinia is accomplished behind one of the plywood panels. Thank you.)
I would have welcomed some implicit rather than the constant explicit depiction. In last season’s Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival production, the play’s most unspeakably brutal acts were suggested by a blend of staging, lighting and sound, rather than depicted, but afterward, you’d swear you had seen every detail. Here, you really did.
“Titus Andronicus” runs through Dec. 18 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC. Performances Tues-Fri at 7:30pm; Sat & Sun at 2 and 7:30pm. Tickets, at $15, a true bargain: 212-967-7555 and at www.publictheater.org
An aside on color-blind casting: Tamora’s bearing of a black baby by Aaron is a major plot point. Unthinkable. Here, one of her two specifically-scripted as white sons is cast with a black actor. The plot point, illustrated in speech and action, is here rendered moot.
And to those who consider Iago to be Shakespeare’s premiere villain: At least he shuts up at the end. “From this time forth, I never will speak word,” Iago says. Aaron has a different exit line: “If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.” That’s a bad guy.