Shakespeare’s lifetime, “Titus Andronicus” was one of his most popular plays.
It’s well known as the goriest of the Shakespearean tragedies, and the
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of “Titus Andronicus” takes up that
mantle in their production that runs through November 2nd. Finely
acted and costumed, Titus is a great offering for some Halloween entertainment
with a Shakespearean twist this month.
production, which is inexplicably set in a steampunk aesthetic, tells the story
of Roman general Titus Andronicus (Jim Hopkins) and his victorious return to
Rome after the death of the last Emperor. As the play begins, the people are
deciding between the late emperor’s two sons: the elder playboy Saturninus
(Justin McCombs) and the younger clear-headed Bassianus (Rupert Spraul) who is
also engaged to Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Maggie Lou Rader). Rashly, because
Titus adheres to the order of things rather than clearly thinking about them,
Titus chooses Saturninus and that choice leads to all their downfalls. Titus
offers Lavinia’s hand in marriage to Saturninus, which upsets Lavinia,
Bassianus, and all of Titus’s sons. Saturninus quickly forsakes Lavinia’s hand
in favor of Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Miranda McGee), whom Titus had defeated
and brought back to Rome as a prisoner. While it seems at first this is a
play about politics, it is actually a revenge tragedy between Tamora and Titus,
because Tamora has sworn revenge on Titus for killing her eldest son when they
arrived in Rome despite her pleas. This one death will lead to the death of
them all as Tamora and Titus avenge themselves on each other by turns. If you
get confused, the whole of the plot is explained in your program, and in the
many projections used throughout the show.
The Company, many of which we’ve already seen on stage at CSC this season, played well as an ensemble and if the space allowed I could write about all of them. McCombs’ Saturninus is a delight, and does a wonderful comedic job setting the tone for audience interactivity in the opening scenes. Miranda McGee as Tamora and Darnell Pierre Benjamin as Aaron the Moor (who is Tamora’s actual lover) are having a blast as the villains of the play. McGee uses her eyebrows and delivery to suggest all sorts of delicious innuendos; and Benjamin’s gleeful direction of murder and mischief make you nearly glad to watch harm come to the Andronicus family. Jim Hopkins carries the role of Titus with gravitas and then madness believably. Maggie Lou Rader plays Lavinia with pathos and justice in her heart, and the moment where she finally names her rapists is powerful.
“Titus Andronicus” is one of Shakespeare’s early plays,
and is not frequently produced in part because of all the blood and gore. While
this production has a goodly amount of blood on stage, I would have expected
more based on the advertising. This was less of a Tarantino blood-fest and more
of a Sweeney Todd. Rainy Edward’s costume design created the world of the play,
blending some Roman elements with a steampunk aesthetic to great success. The
production used projections (designed by Douglas J Borntrager who also designed
the sound) to create titles for the different scenes as a sort of Brechtian
aesthetic. This added to the overall steampunk feel of the play but mostly, in
my opinion, undermined Shakespeare’s text and added to the run time. As well as
projections, there were also videos that give us a visual narrative for some of
the exposition and are done in a sepia-toned 1930s Newsreel style. Designed by
Ryan Lewis, the videos are visually sumptuous and funny, but perhaps
unnecessary. I was sad to have one of the major reveals in the play
happen in a video and not on-stage.
Director Jeremy Dubin, who is also the education director for CSC, writes in his note that this is Shakespeare’s horror movie. But Dubin’s direction makes it clear that he thinks this is horror more in the realm of the “Scream” or “Scary Movie” franchise, than something out of Stephen King. And despite some fine acting and staging, I think that’s to the detriment of the production. The campy aesthetic is fun, but ultimately undermines the horror of the play. When a noose appears on stage to threaten Aaron, an actor of color, it brings a different mood and color to the moment. And In a post #metoo world where Brock Turner’s victim is publishing her account, Lavinia’s violent rape and struggle to name her accuser resonates closer to reality than the campy fun of the rest of the play.
The audience on opening night was by turns howling with laughter and shock at the events of the play. “Titus Andronicus” is a fine night at the theatre and a great pre- or post- Halloween activity to get you in the mood for the season. Tickets are available here.