Wednesday, August 1, 2012

TAO does Titus Andronicus

reviewed by Alec Clayton

Kevin Black, Rick Pearlstein, Ryan Martin Holmberg, Brian Hatcher, Gabriel McClelland, Alayna Joelle Chamberland, Dennis Worrell, Ethan Bujeaud, Victor Worrell, and Priscilla Zal in Titus Andronicus at Olympia Little Theatre
Theater Artists Olympia proudly proclaims on its website: “Olympia's most adventurous theater company is tackling Shakespeare's most controversial play, Titus Andronicus.” Director Pug Bujeaud calls Titus “Shakespeare's most reviled play.” TAO thrives on blood, gore and controversy. They love tackling difficult plays, and they excel at physicality. This “most reviled” of Shakespeare’s plays is a natural fit for them.

More than any of Shakespeare’s plays Titus Andronicus is steeped in blood and gore. This play contains rape, murder and even cannibalism. It is not an easy play to put on, nor is it an easy play for people of tender sensibilities to watch. And the controversy surrounding Titus Andronicus is not just about the sex and violence.  

From the introduction to Titus Andronicus in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare:

"The great majority of English critics either reject this play altogether… or accept as true the      tradition of Ravenscroft, who altered the play in 1687, that “it was not his [Shakespeare’s],” but that he only gave “some master-touches to one or two of the principal parts or characters.” Says one critic: “This play is a perfect slaughter-house… It reeks blood, it smells, blood, we almost feel that we have handled blood—it is so gross.

"…If it is of Shakespearean authorship, it may be regarded as representing the years of crude and violent youth before he had found his true self; his second tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, as representing the years of transition; and Hamlet, the period of maturity and adult power."

This is far from the bard’s best play. It lacks the complexity of plot and the poetry of his greatest works — most notably Hamlet, which I saw last week and reviewed for this blog. Titus the man is one-dimensional in comparison with the conflicted and deep-thinking Hamlet. But Titus the play, when presented as a fast-moving revenge story with lots of action, is riveting. And that is how Bujeaud and cast handle this production. The action is exciting, and the cast is outstanding.

In this version, the story is updated to the 1970s, and the characters are members of rival motorcycle gangs rather than Roman soldiers and Goths. The black leather and headbands and the projected images of contemporary settings add to the excitement, and I’m willing to overlook the obvious disconnect in doing Shakespeare in a contemporary setting—that they speak in the language of the 1600s while fighting with swords rather than guns and brass knuckles.

Titus (Brian Hatcher), a Roman general, has captured Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Samantha Camp). He has also captured her three sons and Aaron the Moor (Mark Peterson), who is Tamora’s lover. Although in love with Aaron, Tamora is forced to marry the Emperor Saturninus (personified as pure evil and ego by the amazing Brian Jansen) and she throws herself into her forced marriage with lustful abandon.
Samantha Camp as Tamora
Priscilla Marie Zal as Lavinia

Titus has Tamora’s eldest son put to death, and she vows revenge, scheming with Aaron to have Titus's two sons framed for the murder, for which crime they are beheaded. Tamora’s sons Chiron (Christopher Rocco) and Demetrius (Tim Samland) rape Titus's daughter Lavinia (Priscilla Marie Zal)—with their mother's blessing—after which they cut off her hands and tongue.

Hatcher is an intense and commanding presence as Titus, and Camp is simply amazing as Tamora — one of the two most captivating and complex characters in the play, the other being Saturninus.  Both Camp and Jansen portray these characters with shouts and large gestures of unbridled passion, yet with nuanced expression. Their love scenes are like mutual rape.

Mark Peterson has a commanding presence. He portrays the heartless, one-dimensional Aaron as a character the audience can easily identify with. He makes this bad guy seem likeable.

Also amazing is Zal as Lavinia, who, in the beginning, is just as lustful as Tamora, but who becomes pitiable after her tongue is ripped out and her hands cut off. Thankfully, the audience is spared the mutilation of her body, but the spectacle of seeing her crawl out of a cage and fold in on herself in fear and pain after the rape and mutilation is heart wrenching and breathtaking.

Scene after scene erupts into orgies of sex, and there are fight scenes with up to 10 to 20 actors on stage at once, both of which go right up to the edge of being overbearing. The director walks a couple of tightropes in deciding how much sex and violence to show. The fight scenes choreographed by Christian Doyle are spectacular and overwhelming, but there is little blood; and we do not see the cutting off of hands but only the blood-soaked rags where hands used to be. And the sex scenes, while graphic, are brief and the lovers are fully clothed.

Titus Andronicus is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat play that’s definitely not for everyone.

WHERE: Olympia Little Theater, 1925 Miller Ave NE, Olympia, WA 98506
WHEN: 7:30 Thursday–Sunday through August 11 and 2:30 pm Sunday, August 12
TICKETS: $12.00 at the door (cash/check only) or online at
Brown Paper Tickets

No comments: