Director Charles Newell’s version of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, currently playing at the Court Theatre, is on the stranger side. Like the Court’s production of Seneca’s Thyestes earlier this season, tropes are added to modernize the play that do little to improve the resulting production. There is a multi-tiered set, sharp in its imposing geometry, standing behind the production, making the production look as if it belongs to no particular historical moment—a harsh, unpleasant time. The play opens with what sounds like soft metal from the ’80s playing as military men traipse back and forth. The sensory experience must be unpleasant, not just for the audience members, but for the men, too, who are wearing white blindfolds, as if to try to avoid their surroundings by any means possible. Two women in brightly colored gowns and expensive wraps embrace the leading officers. They are Tamora, General Titus’s captive Gothic queen, and Lavinia, Titus’s daughter. (Helpful hint: Tamora wears the red gown; Lavinia, that turquoise short thing.) Lavinia shakes hands with everyone while thrumming, intimidating music plays. It’s as if we’re watching some bizarre music video. One of the soldiers even lip-synchs into a microphone.
Eventually, the music stops, and the dialogue, accompanied by giggling, commences. From the beginning, much of the speech in this play is read from (or perhaps mimed as being read from) blank speech booklets. These booklets serve as individual parts for the play, each labeled with the name of a character. They are a little overused and don’t seem to serve enough of a purpose. The dialogue itself can be jarring. Some lines are not only clear innovations from the original Shakespeare, but they also haven’t been written to sound like the original work. These are lines of commentary on the play, for the most part. They range from nearing the realm of Michael Moore with cheap jibes at the military and the metaphysical, to fully acknowledging that these are lines being spoken within the artificial circumstances of a play. “What the fuck are you doing, man?” and “I think I missed my cue” are just representatives of the sort of lines that the crew at the Court has seen fit to add to their Titus.
All these tropes serve to call attention to the limits of the stage. Artificial echoes, and the unimpressive height of what is meant to be a hard fall, are made evident. Then the echoing man says “You’re making that up…my line’s not gonna make sense…. I don’t know about this.” He runs and screams melodramatically.
The play does improve a bit more than halfway in. The distracting music tones down. Speech patterns that were unstable before, seeming contemporary to neither Shakespeare nor Newell, returned to normal cadences and speeds. The insincere melodrama starts to fade, and the audience is finally able to be alternately drawn in and disgusted by the fake blood spurting across the stage, staining the actors’ costumes. But all in all, the plot doesn’t shine through this production as well as it could or should. Be sure to review the original Shakespeare before going. Or perhaps you should curl up in bed with one of those Bevington paperbacks from the Seminary Co-Op instead.