The Audacity of Despair
Dead Playwrights Repertory, Haddonfield Friends Meeting House, Haddonfield, N.J.
Sunday, October 13, 2013, One end of studio space
Directed by Kirk Paul
It's not enough that Douglas Overtoom, playing the title character of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and dressed in chef's jacket, enters for the final scene shouting "Bam!" a la Emeril Lagasse. True audacity comes when he passes through the audience handing out cookies from a copper pot like a priest offering communion. These cookies are supposed to be the pie that Titus cooked up from the remains of Tamora's sons, which he is about to feed to her and the corrupt Roman emperor Saturninus. Naturally, we look at these cookies with some trepidation—before eating them. It's a dare to our human sensibilities.
That's what Titus Andronicus is at its very essence: a dare, for any theater company to put it on and for any audience to watch. In this Dead Playwrights Repertory production, director Kirk Paul dares his Lavinia (Alexandra Bailey) to not merely carry Titus's severed hand in her mouth but pick it up off the ground with her teeth. He has Titus castrate Chiron and Demetrius (Jim Ewald and Charlie Kirkwood, respectively) before he slits their throats, with a smiling Lavinia holding the pot to catch their blood. He also gives Aaron what looks like a Cabbage Patch doll to carry as his infant son, which is either the lot of a community theater operating on the skimpiest of budgets or another sick joke—or both. However, Paul doesn't rely only on gross-outs or cop-outs to make his Titus Andronicus as indelible as the pool of Lavinia's blood still staining the floor despite two actors toiling to remove it during intermission. Paul lets the language carry the play, and Overtoom scores the production's biggest punch with his full-throated woe in the play's centerpiece scenes.
This Titus Andronicus makes up one-third of the Dead Playwrights Repertory's current three-play "Blood Is Thicker than Water" repertoire, which also includes Shakespeare's and John Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen and The Children of Oedipus, a three-part combination of Sophocles and Aeschylus plays. The company presents the thematic string linking these three presentations as "family loyalty [being] a powerful thing, whether it's family by blood, marriage, or friendship, and when that loyalty is shaken, tragedy inevitably follows."
This concept, however, is not readily apparent in the productions themselves as presented by this community theater group, located in the Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia and playing to a dozen people, mostly friends and family, in the fellowship hall of a Quaker Meeting Hall. While Two Noble Kinsmen has plot, geographic, and character connections to the Greek combo—and both of those productions are directed by Overtoom—Titus is the odd play out in this repertory. Nor does this Titus offer any further insights into some sort of blood-is-thicker-than-water thematic arc (just that blood is pretty thick and cleaning it up is a chore). Whereas the other two productions delve into the disintegration of families from internal forces, Titus pits one family against the other and takes the enmity to gruesome heights. Tamora, queen of the Goths (Wendie Hetherington), takes the first hit when Titus, who has defeated her in war, kills her first son in a ritual tribute to his own sons killed in the battle. But whether it is the loss of her child or the fact that she was made to beg on her knees in the street that galls her most, she sets about to get her revenge.
The first scene of the play is a quick succession of confusing plot twists: brothers Saturninus and Bassianus are vying for the Roman empery after their father's death; the tribunes bestow the crown on Titus who declines it and gives his voice to Saturninus; Saturninus desires Lavinia as his bride and Titus readily acquiesces though she is betrothed to Bassianus; Bassianus spirits Lavinia away, aided by her brothers, one of whom is killed by Titus defending Saturninus's honor; Saturninus announces he is marrying Tamora instead and accuses Titus and his family of treason; Tamora makes peace between the emperor and the Andronici, but for political and Machiavellen reasons.
Paul, perhaps for casting reasons, chooses to delete from this narrative Titus's killing of his own son, and with it his subsequent refusal to allow his other sons and Lavinia to bury the "villain son" in the family vault. It's a scene that shows Titus's intransigent nature when it comes to his sense of honor and duty to state, and in placing those qualities above his own family's welfare he lays the ground for the betrayals and abuses he and his family subsequently endure. With all that missing, Overtoom can stay comfortably in the nobility persona Titus himself wants to perpetuate and then play the role of victim when Tamora's machinations are put in motion.
Yet, Overtoom plays the victim well. His futile appeal to the tribunes to spare his sons wrongly accused of murdering Bassianus wells from a place deep within. When son Lucius (Fran Pedersen) tells him he laments in vain, recounting his sorrows to a stone, Overtoom gives Titus's reply a reverberating resonance that strikes home deep within any of us who have faced what seems an unjust, unendurable tragedy: "I tell my sorrows bootless to the stones who, though they cannot answer my distress, yet in some sort they are better than the tribunes for that they will not intercept my tale: when I do weep, they humbly at my feet receive my tears and seem to weep with me."
This is before the violated, mutilated Lavinia is led on stage by Titus's brother, Marcus (Andrew Maksymowych). Overtoom delivers his reaction speech to Lavinia with equal measures of self-pity, tenderness, and anger. Next comes the prank that leads to Titus cutting off his own hand to save the lives of his two convicted sons, and that hand and the heads of those sons subsequently being dumped on the stage in front of Titus. As Marcus laments, Overtoom's Titus just stares at the body parts, his expression frozen in an aspect of bewilderment. There's no further room in his psyche for any more hurt, and so he breaks out in laughter. "Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour," Marcus says. "Why?" replies Titus. "I have not another tear to shed," and in this line the anger takes hold and becomes his foundation going forward. "Besides, this sorrow is an enemy and would usurp upon my wat'ry eyes and make them blind with tributary tears. Then which way shall I find Revenge's cave?" Overtoom not only convincingly navigates this psychologically searing sequence, he takes our own emotions along with him.
Another interesting character arc comes in the portrayals of Chiron and Demetrius, exhibiting their Goth barbarianism by wearing floor-length fur skirts and no shirts. Though prisoners in the opening scene, they start acting like excited puppies when Lavinia first strolls on stage. They are ready to break lose and start pawing Titus's daughter then and there except that their mother keeps them in check. Vile though Demetrius and Chiron may be, Kirkwood and Ewald actually pull off their attack of Lavinia with such glee we almost laugh with them. Almost. But at the end, we are definitely laughing at them. Disguised as Murder and Rape in the company of their mother disguised as Revenge, they resist Titus's request to Tamora to allow them to stay behind while she fetches the emperor and queen. "No, no," Ewald says emphatically, a barely audible extratextual insertion. It's a comic insertion but one that indicates their discomfort with their mother's plan. After Titus has had them bound and stretched out on a table, we can hear the gagged Kirkwood moan "uh-oh" when he sees Titus with his knife out, another laugh-inducing insertion to the text.
Eric Mills, on the other hand, gleans every part of his portrayal of Saturninus from the text and in doing so scores a repertoire trifecta of fine performances. He plays an exasperated Theseus in The Two Noble Kinsmen and a commanding Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus. His Saturninus falls somewhere between. Though obviously spoiled and self-centered, constantly clutching the train of his shimmering gold robe in his right hand, he has the commanding presence that would prompt Titus to give him his voice (aside from being the first-born, which clearly means most to Titus). Mills's Saturninus requests Lavinia out of pure pique—toward his brother and to establish his power over Titus—but his lust gets the better of him from the moment he actually sees Tamora. In the later scenes, his frustration grows out of the gap between his self-perception and the reality of his rule. Mills, who as an actor has solid command of Shakespeare's verse (and Sophocles's, too), portrays a most complex Saturninus.
But then, underneath the revenge plot and gory goings on, Titus Andronicus is a play of complex characters, and complex emotions, too. You realize just how true that is when you hold in your hand a cookie made of Chiron and Demetrius—and you take a bite, anyway.
October 18, 2013