New York Shakespeare Exchange's Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus
Adapted and Directed by Ross Williams
Written by William Shakespeare
New York Shakespeare Exchange
145 6th Avenue, New York, NY 10013
January 22-February 8, 2015

The New York Shakespeare Exchange has its finger in more than one pie, and not all of them are, as in Titus Andronicus, filled with human flesh. In addition to its current production of Shakespeare’s gory early crowd-pleaser, the group created The Sonnet Project, which develops a short film shot in a "cultural/historic" NYC location for each sonnet. The results can be viewed online or through a dedicated mobile app (available for IOS or Android). It also runs periodic pub crawls called ShakesBEER, which we can personally recommend as a fun way to experience a few new drinking establishments in the City accompanied by themed scenes or mash-ups from the Bard’s dramatic canon.

Titus follows the increasingly brutal conflict between the title character -- a veteran general newly and victoriously returned to Rome from war against the Goths, played with some nice touches, especially in the play's second half, by Brendan Averett (who last year occupied a very different Shakespearean role as one of the "rude mechanicals" in Julie Taymor's Midsummer Night's Dream for Theatre for a New Audience) -- and his family on the one side, and newly chosen Emperor Saturninus and the Goths that initially arrive in Rome as Titus's prisoners on the other. The Shakespeare Exchange defines its mission as providing points of entry for audiences by infusing Shakespeare’s works with contemporary culture, and Titus Andronicus makes good on that promise in its opening stretch, during which a game of tag slowly turns deadly, and then devolves into what can best be described as a mosh pit with knives. It's difficult for any production of Titus to avoid comparison to Taymor's own hugely influential version, and some of the stylized group movements near the ending of this opening section seem to nod directly to the soldiers in Taymor's opening Coliseum sequence. The Goths' costumes also take a cue from that earlier iteration, flaunting fur, feathers, and leather: goth Goths!

A further contextualization for contemporary audiences occurs in setting the play in a circus tent whose rear wall is dominated by what resembles a target made of concentric circles of colored lights. The circus motif extends to the expansion of the Clown's role. Appearing briefly in two scenes in the original play, the Clown (Kerry Kastin) here remains onstage for basically the entirety of the runtime, reminiscent of but more complex than how Taymor's version used Young Lucius as a constant observer and figure of audience identification. Kastin's Clown does plenty of observing, often from a dressing-room area forming one side of the set, but she also doubles a series of minor parts, allowing Williams's adaptation to comment on its themes by, for example, having her die both as Tamora’s and then as Titus's son. After murdering her multiple times onstage, the production unexpectedly combines the role of the original Clown, who is taken off to be hanged, with that of Emilius, one of the corrupt Emperor's men, and thereby saves her, making her an almost redemptive character. In the original text, the Clown is collateral damage to a perhaps unsettling degree, considering that the audience is supposed to sympathize with Titus's vengeance: he has nothing to do with the war of offended honors and is sentenced to death because Titus asks him to deliver what turns out to be a threatening letter to Saturninus. Here, clearly frustrated with being the casual casualty of others' violent disagreements, her self-extrication from the threat of death provides a counterpoint to the play's straight-line path towards all-consuming slaughter.

The Exchange puts some clever twists on other moments as well, including individual line readings such as making Lavinia's declaration the morning after her wedding night that she has been "broad awake two hours and more" signal consummation rather than coldness, inflecting how we see Titus's figurehead for chastity. Williams and company also come up with a fun solution to staging a scene that calls for the Andronici to fire arrows at the heavens and the Emperor's court. Earlier, the production keeps Marcus's often-cut speech upon finding the mutilated Lavinia in the woods, which connects to one of the most interesting decisions that this Titus makes. Marcus's lengthy reaction is often cut or cut down for stopping the action or for seemingly inappropriately flowery at a visceral moment, but it comes across as appropriate for a staging that at that point is and has been, in the sense of stage effects, bloodless, the results of violence on the body signaled rather than shown. This changes, however, at a crucial turning point in the play, when there is a sudden, surprising, and impactful advent of blood. It continues to flow for the rest of the action; how far we have come from a game of tag.

One less successful piece of symbolism was covering Young Lucius (Sean Hinckle) in what appeared be dried blood at first and making him progressively less stained. When he ends up clean at the end, it isn’t completely clear what this is meant to show or why he in particular undergoes this change. On the whole, though, this is a rare misstep among a range of smart, well-executed choices.

Kate Lydic imparts memorable dimensionality to Lavinia despite not having the ability to speak for much of play, communicating Lavinia's trauma in the family dinner scene, for example, by shrinking in distress from the noises of a knife hitting the table or her father beginning to yell. Joseph Michael Parks’s delivery of Lucius's justification of the Andronici’s actions near the end of the play is the most effective use in the production of direct address to the audience, placing the spectators (as Romans) in the position of tacitly approving what has transpired onstage. Vince Gatton and Gretchen Egolf as the emperor Saturninus and Tamora, his prisoner-turned-war-bride, effectively embody the corrupt power couple losing control of their subjects, and Ethan Itzkow and Nathaniel P. Claridad as Tamora's sons Chiron and Demetrius are debauched, weak-minded, and terrifically creepy as they revel in the change in their own positions that has been brought about by their mother’s advantageous marriage. Warren Jackson's performance as Aaron the Moor, the smooth-talking, irredeemable villain, grew stronger throughout the performance, and when he reveals the truths about recent events in Rome to a revolted Lucius or regrets his sins only because he did not commit more of them, he commands the stage.

Ross Williams and the New York Shakespeare Exchange have mounted a Titus Andronicus that's more thought-provoking than your usual carnival, but just as enjoyable. Come one, come all. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler