On a boring afternoon, when not much else was doing, a Roman tenement dweller from the age of the Caesars might amble down to the Coliseum and dawdle away a few hours watching condemned criminals fight to the death or be devoured by wild beasts. Well, it couldn't be helped. That was before special effects.
What kind of special effects, one wonders, did the Lord Chamberlain's Men use a millennium later to create the mayhem of The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, reputedly written by their rising young playwright-in-residence, William Shakespeare? In fact, it may not have been written by Shakespeare at all. One 17th-century commentator says, "I have been told by some anciently conversant with the stage, that it was not originally Shakespeare's, but brought by a private author to be acted, and he only gave some master touches to one or two of the principal characters." One thing is certain: Titus Andronicus is a Roman play your average Coliseum-goer would have given a hearty thumbs up to.
Now, Shakespeare -- even when he's showing restraint -- can get pretty savage. In King Lear, we see a man's eyes gouged out. Hamlet strews the stage with corpses. But Titus Andronicus at times feels like a Monty Python spoof of Elizabethan theatrics. John Grimsley, director of, and star performer in, Dog and Pony's recent Titus (outdoors in City Park and indoors at the CAC), clearly saw the dangers. Searching for some kind of distancing device to make the sanguinary doings watchable, he went East. He fitted out his cast in Kabuki-like face paint, armed them with martial arts staves, and bathed the tale in a kind of postmodern chinoiserie. Thanks to the staves, which were often banged in unison on the resonant platforms and to two drummers behind the stage, this was a very percussive tragedy. Very.
Titus Andronicus is rarely done. The butchery is just overwhelming. Leaving aside the incidental stabbing deaths (which one more or less expects), we have a sweet, beloved daughter, Lavinia, who is humiliated and raped. Both her hands are chopped off and her tongue is cut out. This is done off stage. However, she reenters with her bandaged stomps and bloody mouth -- a sight that impels her father, Titus, to horrible revenge. But not before he receives additional provocations from the Emperor and his Empress, Tamora, Queen of the Goths. The Emperor offers to spare Titus' sons (unjustly accused of murder), if Titus will agree to have his own hand chopped off, as well. However, once the amputation is complete, the emperor goes back on his word and sends Titus his sons' heads. That's the last straw! Titus invites the imperial couple to a parley, ostensibly in the hopes of averting civil war. There he offers a feast composed of the ground-up body parts of the Empress' sons (whose throats Titus himself had slit, while Lavinia collected their blood in a bowl she held with her stumps).
The CAC's back warehouse was an excellent choice for all this barbarism. Lighting was reduced to flaming torches and a few, harsh, high-wattage footlights that threw ominous shadows on the tall brick walls.
As Titus, Grimsley had a suitably commanding presence. He was particularly effective when he let himself enjoy the lurid Sweeney Todd extravagance of it all -- as when he staggered into the cannibal feast wearing a cockeyed chef's toque. Diana Shortes gave us a fascinating and serpentine Tamora. Philip Tracy, Don Guillory, Ryan Reinike, Donald Lewis, Justin Scalise and Randy Maggiore did yeomen's service in creating an atmosphere of violence and betrayal. Melissa Hall was a poignant Lavinia, the only one of the many victims for whom one feels more than a fleeting moment of sympathy.
One of director Grimsley's happiest inventions was the use of red cloth as blood. The cloth was hidden in the hollow staves and gushed out symbolically when a person was slain. In the same vein (if you'll pardon the pun), Titus' severed hand was nothing more than a leather glove. Nonetheless, no matter how cleverly stylized, this script gets staggeringly apocalyptic. For instance, how is one to react to an exit line like the following (said by the amputated Titus to his brother and his amputee daughter, regarding his two son's severed heads and his own severed hand): "Come brother, take a head/And in this hand the other will I bear/Lavinia, thou shalt be employ'd in these things:/Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth."
It may be one of Shakespeare's first unforgettable lines. But for all the wrong reasons.
- In your face: Dog and Pony's John Grimsley provided a commanding presence as Titus in the company's recent staging of Titus Andronicus at the CAC.