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December 1, 2009

Dean's Titus tells a bloody tale of modern violence

Imagine Shakespeare’s eloquence combined with Quentin Tarantino’s poetic violence and some frighteningly believable acting, and you have the Dean’s Men production of Titus Andronicus. This week, UChicago’s very own Shakespeare company will perform what is by far the bloodiest of the Bard’s plays. And if you like theater that’s in your face—literally but a few inches away at times—then you will enjoy Titus even more.

Titus Andronicus (James LaRoque), a general in the Roman army, returns to Rome after battling the Goths. He brings with him the queen of the Goths, Tamora (Marie Sennyey), her children (Greg Brew, Sam Chereskin, Woody Davis) and her lover (Jason Shain). He sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son, Alarbus (Greg Brew), to avenge his own sons who died at the hands of the Goths. Upon the death of the Emperor, the tribune of the people, Titus's brother Marcus (Caroline O’Donovan), states that the people would like Titus to become the new Emperor. But Titus gives the throne instead to the Emperor’s eldest son, Saturninus (Ricky Zacharias) instead of taking it for himself. Then, when Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Eleanor Davis) refuses to marry the newly crowned Saturninus in favor his younger brother, Bassianus (Erin Kelsey), Saturninus decides to marry Tamora instead. The power Tamora gets from this marriage, in conjunction with Titus’s sacrifice of Alarbus, provokes a cycle of revenge which incites over a dozen deaths, dismemberment, rape, a live burial, and even cannibalism.

“When I was first doing my concept for this play, the person who kept jumping out was Quentin Tarantino, and Kill Bill in particular,” noted director Andrew Cutler. “There are a lot of analogues between the two.” Cutler originally envisioned the Goths and Romans as competing street gangs, which later transformed into something a bit more militaristic, complete with guns and knives.

Cutler chose a modern day setting instead of the original ancient Rome, which allows the play to reinforce how violence still overwhelms society. The brutality inherent in Titus Andronicus has drawn many critics to condemn it as Shakespeare’s worst work, but Cutler argues that the play is still relevant. “That violence still goes on; just because people don’t see it in this country doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” Cutler said. The play reminds audiences that violence is not a problem one can simply ignore. The staging intensifies Titus’s violence. The actors perform both on the stage and in a large aisle in between the two halves of the audience. This nearness forces the audience uncomfortably close to the violence, rendering it inescapable. Unfortunately, sightlines suffer with this staging, as it’s impossible to always see the action.

Indeed, all of the actors bring a three-dimensionality to their characters. Sennyey thoughtfully exposes Tamora’s vulnerability at the play’s outset when she pleads for her son’s life, peeling back a proud front to reveal a desperate mother and the foundations for her all-consuming pursuit of revenge. LaRoque’s shock and remorse upon seeing how the Goths have harmed his daughter is equally touching, as are O’Donovan’s despair upon finding Lavinia and Davis’s moving portrayal of a girl who has been brutally violated. At the play’s end, Nick Bailey reassures the audience as Lucius, one of Titus’s sons, that, despite the horrors inflicted on the city, Rome will somehow prevail. As Tamora’s surviving sons and her lover, Chereskin, Davis, and Shain are joyfully sadistic to the point of inducing shivers, while Zacharias seems to revel in Saturninus’s evil deeds.

Despite the play’s dramatic tone, there are some genuinely cheerful moments. In one scene, for instance, the characters drink and toss beer cans to inspire a few chuckles. But this happiness is fleeting, as the controlling idea of the play is revenge and its grave consequences. “We see how the relationship Titus and Tamora get locked into ends up destroying Rome,” Cutler said. However, in watching Titus, the audience not only sees the destruction of Rome, they witness a prophecy, as well as the consequence of violence. Titus demonstrates how uncontrollable and inescapable the cycle of revenge can be.