Billed as Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedy, Titus Andronicus is believed to be one of the playwright's first works and not his finest. Presented by See 'Em On Stage at the AllWays Theatre, it includes 14 killings, six severed members, one rape, one live burial, one case of insanity and one of cannibalism — "an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines," according to Renaissance scholar S. Clarke Hulse. Barbarisms come in such quick succession — blood spewing from mouths, necks and limbs — that the heinous acts seem more comic than tragic. Unlike Shakespeare's later tragedies, wherein heroes gain wisdom through suffering, this play's unrelenting violence is senseless. Perhaps that is the point.
When Roman Gen. Titus Andronicus (Ron Gural) returns from a decade of war, having lost 21 of his own sons, he murders the first-born son of the losing army's queen, Tamora (Trina Beck), as is the custom. Titus' son Lucius (Levi Hood) lops off Alarbus' arms and throws his entrails into a fire, despite Tamora's desperate pleas. Tamora is chosen as empress by the new emperor, Saturninus (Clint Johnson). She pretends to be forgiving, but secretly plots revenge — "I'll find a day to massacre them all / And raze their faction and their family, / The cruel father, and his traitorous sons, / To whom I sued for my dear son's life." She casts blame on Titus' sons for murdering the emperor's brother Bassianus (Eli Timm), and they are beheaded.
Tamora is wickedly devious and her lover, Aaron the Moor (Monica Harris), is the incarnation of evil. Dressed like Elton John in a gold jacket and tinted eyeshades, Saturninus epitomizes an indifferent and narcissistic ruler. Costuming from different periods suggests the timelessness of Shakespeare's bloodthirsty story.
Tamora prods her sons Chiron (Nathaniel Twarog) and Demetrius (Kyle Woods) to rape Titus' daughter Lavinia (Kali Russell), and they also cut out her tongue and chop off her hands. For much of the play, Russell staggers around the theater, clothed only in undergarments, with the stumps of her arms resembling like bloody branches.
This review is not long enough to mention every gruesome act, which also include Bassianus skewered like a kebab and Tamora's doltish sons baked into meat pies.
With many thinly developed characters and so much wanton carnage, there is little reason for the audience to care about the outcome. In effect, evil seems to triumph.
Though Titus Andronicus is supposed to be a great warrior, Gural visually lacks the machismo to have battled across Europe and offers a dispassionate reaction to the assault on his daughter. Forced to chop off his own hand to ransom his sons, he exhibits no pain. Presumably his lack of emotion indicates a growing insanity, but it isn't believable.
Were Titus Andronicus presented on a proscenium stage with spectacular effects to represent epic battle and intrigue, the complicated plot might be dramatic, but the characters are unsympathetic and the cause of the conflict unfathomable.