On more than a few occasions, Titus Andronicus, which premiered at the Museum of Northern Arizona on Friday, July 20, calls to itself in an unabashed smashing of the fourth wall. Other times that wall is absolved completely, and we’re left in awe of its daring violence and ferocious acting, as when Aaron, portrayed by O’Neil Delapenha, shouts a disturbing monologue about the evils for which he is unapologetic.
After having defeated the Goths, Titus Andronicus (Vicki Thompson) returns to Rome with Queen Tamora (Amie Bjorklund) along with her sons as her prisoners. Titus kills Tamora’s eldest son, Alarbus, to avenge the deaths of her own during the war. When Saturninus (Gavin Buckley) is ultimately named emperor, he attempts to marry Titus’ daughter, Lavinia (Mary Townsend). Lavinia refuses, already betrothed to Saturninus’ brother, Bassianus (Cameron Scully), and instead, Saturninus marries Tamora. Together they plot revenge against Titus.
For centuries, Titus Andronicus has been regarded as one of William Shakespeare’s most violent and least respected plays. Because of such disdain, the authorship of Titus Andronicus has often been questioned, leading some to believe Shakespeare could not possibly write such a violent and melodramatic tragedy. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, views on the play have shifted, with many scholars arguing the play’s ultraviolence, including rape, mutilation, murder, torture and cannibalism, grows increasingly relevant in an increasingly violent world.
Under direction from Dawn Tucker, Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival's production of Titus Andronicus, although powerful in its experimentation, appears to be caught in between reveling in its violence with playful parody and demanding to be taken seriously with its dark, dystopic tone.
Tucker’s production incorporates a live musical component from Sean Golightly and Antoinette Martin-Hanson, with large-scale musical and dance numbers that bookend the play, and while the music does well punctuating the drama unfolding on stage, at times it also aids in creating tone that crisscrosses into confusion. After a short prelude by Golightly and Martin-Hanson, a cover of Gin Wigmore’s “Kill of the Night” sets the tragedy in motion. “I'm gonna catch ya/ I'm gonna get ya, get ya/ I wanna taste the way that you bleed/ You're my kill of the night,” sings the cast as they stomp around the stage and stare down the audience. It’s an uneasy, visceral feeling that is almost immediately undercut by prolonged exposition.
Rather than late-Imperial Christian Rome, Tucker’s production is set in a sort of Mad Max dystopia which combines the past and the future, with some characters dawning robes and fanciful garments while others wear tattered catcher’s gear, shoulder pads, helmets and jeans. A few practical effects make for intriguing displays of violence, such as a white wallpaper splattered with blood whenever someone dies (14 altogether, though some off stage). It is used as the canvas on which Lavinia reveals her attackers with a stick between her mouth, guided with her stubs, and the cast are all on point, creating a unique sense of madness, hysteria and doom.
For much of Titus Andronicus, we’re left swimming between two very distinct feelings. At one moment we’re appalled by a bloodied Lavinia who has been raped and mutilated, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out as to not reveal her attackers, and the next we’re amused by Titus’ self-referential and hysterical madness. At another moment we’re shocked when Titus tricks Tamora and Saturninus into cannibalism by sneaking human flesh into pasties and then the next we’re delighted by the play’s closing musical number, a cover of “Ghosts” by ZZ Ward, which Golightly used creative freedom with to adhere more to the story of Titus Andronicus. That dichotomy is alarming at first, and then becomes charming and quirky as the play moves forward, losing whatever thematic elements it had hoped to shed light on—if any.
With Tucker’s production of Titus Andronicus,the audacity of its violence and its acting elicits such a visceral reaction and prompts an attentive ear, but it doesn’t always have much to say.
Performances of Titus Andronicus will be held at the Museum of Northern Arizona Friday through Sunday. Tickets are $22.50 for general admission; $16.50 for students, seniors and military; 12.50 for youth ages 10-14. For specific times and information visit www.flagshakes.org