The Lamentable Tragedy of Our Times
Taffety Punk Theatre Company, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, D.C.
Friday, October 4, 2013 (Up the steps, left side in studio theater)
Directed by Lise Bruneau
In a play that will feature blood lust, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, and a whole bunch of crazy people—William Shakespeare's Mad Max set in the Roman Empire's faltering years—Titus Andronicus opens with political speeches. Kind of makes those of us living in Washington, D.C., squirm uneasily even before the mayhem starts.
Despite this play's formal speech structure and stylized characters, and despite this play's standing as Saw in iambic pentameter, Titus Andronicus seems so "this is us" in the modern dress, all-woman Riot Grrrls production at Taffety Punk, who uses a 48-seat studio theater less than a mile from the U.S. Capitol. That the cast is only comprised of women is of no relevance to the production; you won't find any feminist gleanings or gender-bending insights, only 10 actresses playing men as men (while two actresses play women). Unfortunately, that the production is by Taffety Punk is of little relevance, too. This company that has a reputation for taking unshackled approaches to Shakespeare while maintaining utmost respect for his verse, presents here a pedantic Titus with some listless line readings.
Director Lise Bruneau doesn't shy away from the play's staged horrors, though, which start when Titus (Isabelle Anderson), returning from a triumphant war against the Goths, chooses the eldest son of the Goth Queen, Tamora (Sara Waisanen), as a sacrifice to his own dead sons killed in the war. We can hear offstage the screams of that Goth warrior as Titus's other sons "hew his limbs till they be clean consumed." For those of us who know the play, we begin shuddering then and there at the foreknowledge of Lavinia's fate, Titus' lone daughter. For those who don't know the play, the moment when Lavinia arrives, raped, hands chopped off, and tongue cut out, leaves them paralyzed in shock.
Rana Kay as Lavinia takes us to the production's emotional depth in these centerpiece scenes. With her arms ending in bloody stumps, Kay plays a woman in a state worse than death: violated, mutilated, and, perhaps most agonizing of all for her, carrying the memory of watching her beloved husband murdered, learning her brothers are accused of his murder, and having no tongue or hands with which to reveal the culprits of all this havoc. The fits of grief her uncle Marcus (an ever-steady Esther Williamson) and, later, her father utter in high oratorical tone only furthers her pain. Shakespeare seems a bit sick in his composition of these scenes for they could be played with wry ironic humor, but Kay plays Lavinia as if each allegorical image were a poniard thrust into her already reeling psyche.
We still have to endure Titus having his hand cut off in a villainous prank by Aaron the Moor (Tiernan Madorno gliding across the stage in central African tribal garb), but the mimed event carries more impact in the context than the act itself. Toward the end of the play when Titus kills Tamora's remaining two sons, Amanda Forstrom as spoiled brat Chiron and Teresa Spencer as spoiled brat Demetrius, use red ribbons to represent the blood flowing from their slit throats. We've seen a few Bottoms playing Pyramus use this device in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and as the rude mechanicals' production of "Pyramus and Thisbe" is Shakespeare's chain-yanking of amateur productions, red ribbon blood flow doesn't leave the lasting impression this production of Titus Andronicus intended. However, when Tamora starts chowing down on what looks like a cherry pie that Titus serves her, it spikes the gross quotient to real heights as the dish made of ingredients that include her two sons looks good enough for us to eat.
Therein lies the psychological effectiveness of this production; while everything that happens in this Elizabethan slasher play seems extreme, here it all comes off as disturbingly reflective of our own lives. This starts with Anderson's anchoring portrayal of Titus. This woman, whom we saw this past summer as a gracefully beautiful Cleopatra, is more than a believable soldiering man as Titus. Her Andronicus is the old man he keeps calling himself, still fit to fight but slow to rise on creaky knees. He's not just physically old, though; he's out of step in the Rome that has long left behind the days when honor mattered. Wearing his pride as naturally as his gun-metal gray John Kerry haircut, Anderson's Titus opens the play flowing in an aspect of ceremony as he buries his sons, sacrifices his enemy's son, desists Tamora's plea for mercy, declines the empery, and settles the dispute over the crown between brothers Saturninus and Bassianus.
That he chooses Saturninus, played as an impetuous, sniveling, overly privileged whelp by Tia Shearer, over Aaryn Kopp's gentle, respectful, upright Bassianus is the first clear clue of how out of touch this Titus is. He obliviously ignores reality when tradition has such a hold on him (OK, that whole hewing of the Goth's limbs might be a clear clue, too, but it's his sons who urge him on to that act).
The present, though, rushes right past Titus in a matter of a couple dozen lines. Saturninus demands Lavinia as his wife, to which Titus acquiesces though she is betrothed to Bassianus, then her brothers help Bassianus spirit her away during which Titus kills one of his own sons in defending the honor of his new emperor who, at the same time, marries Tamora instead and repays Titus's endorsement for the empery with accusation of treason. As these events transpire, and through much of the play, Anderson plays Titus with a hint of bewilderment, the look of a man who knows by all he knows and his society's moral codes that he is doing right and yet he's betrayed, ostracized, and castigated for it, and his family suffers unbearable horrors. The production's program makes a point of using the play's full title, The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, and Anderson gives us such a lamentable Titus that we begin to fill sorry for him even as he's hewing his defeated enemy and killing his own son for protecting his lone daughter.
Titus Andronicus is a revenge tragedy, a popular genre in Shakespeare's day, and the play makes a point of demonstrating how revenge so easily spirals into destruction as it feeds upon itself. Tamora begs for mercy for her son, and when Titus ignores her and has her son killed anyway, the Goth Queen sets her sights on getting revenge. She does so by having her sons kill Bassanius, placing the blame on Titus' sons, who are then executed, and, as an added bonus, granting her sons the opportunity to rape and mutilate Lavinia. Titus then gets his revenge by killing Tamora's two sons and cooking them into a pie he serves to the mother. Titus then kills Tamora, revenge sated. Saturninus immediately kills Titus, revenge sated. Titus's lone surviving son, Lucius (Jenna Berk), immediately kills Saturninus, revenge sated.
Chiron (Amanda Forstrom), left, and Demetrius (Teresa Spencer) rough up Lavinia (Rana Kay) over the dead body of Lavinia's husband, Bassianus (Aaryn Kopp), whom they killed, before leading her off to rape and mutilate her in Taffety Punk's production of Titus Andronicus at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Top, Isabelle Anderson as Titus. Photos by Brittany Diliberto, Taffety Punk Theatre Company.
Sure, the cycle of revenge goes to ridiculous levels, but in the political theater under the white dome we can see glowing in the night sky down Pennsylvania Avenue, a revenge-fueled cycle of acts and counteracts among our own empire's anointed leaders has mutilated some of our most revered institutions and could leave our economy well and truly cooked. Had Titus shown respect and understanding for his opponent at the beginning, no mayhem would have followed. But, then, mayhem makes for more interesting theater.
The cycle in Titus Andronicus ends with Lucius, not because only he is left after the final scene massacre but because, earlier, at the point of executing Aaron for his complicity in Tamora's plots, Lucius had vowed to ensure the Moor's baby by Tamora is kept alive and cared for. That baby has this production's last lines, as the blanketed bundle is carried on stage for the finale banquet and placed on the floor when the knives come out. After Lucius orders that Aaron be buried up to his neck and left to starve, and that Tamora's body be cast forth to the beasts and birds of prey, the bundle of joy, still lying on the floor, starts to cry. Nobody picks up the baby—Lucius and his soldiers just stare uncomfortably at Aaron's baby and at each other. Does that baby's cry represent hope? Or does it foretell another generation of revenge-fueled destruction?
Maybe in another day I would see hope in this ending. But not today. Not here.
October 10, 2013