By William Shakespeare
Directed by Joel Sass
California Shakespeare Theater
Bruns Auditorium, Orinda, Calif.
June 1-26, 2011
Bloody, bloody “Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare’s rarely performed first tragedy boasts buckets of gore, amputations, rape, cannibalism, other assorted mayhem and, believe it or not, it’s a lot of fun. Joel Sass has directed a fast-moving production at Cal Shakes that can make you forget the cold, rain and whatever else the elements can throw at you in the outdoor Orinda Bruns Auditorium. There is little in the way of romance (“Romeo” this isn’t), quotability (the only line I recognized is: “She is a woman, therefore she can be wooed…”) or redemption (the final image is perhaps the most horrifying of all) and, although there is some comedy, it is ancillary. What makes this production so good is the production itself.
James Carpenter, fast becoming the Bay Area’s most ubiquitous actor, takes the title role, a man in his later years—a war hero who has sacrificed his retirement and a score of sons in the service of Rome—who returns from his latest victory to find betrayal and downright persecution as his reward. Carpenter’s diction is impeccable, his delivery conversational and his personal gravitas perfect for the part. He begins in dignity, perhaps with a touch of arrogance, and works his way through despair, madness and then his own cold-blooded revenge. He is a loving father and a loyal citizen until he too becomes a ruthless murderer. Spoiler alert: nobody in this play, except perhaps Dan Hiatt’s kindly Marcus, brother to Titus, is very nice. And even Marcus goes along with some pretty seamy stuff, as long as it is done by his folks.
Titus’ nemesis is the sexy, scheming Queen of the Goths, whom he has toted back as his prisoner. Tamora (Stacy Ross) catches the eye of the new emperor Saturninus (Rob Cambell) and soon is freed to wreak her revenge on her former conqueror. The villains: Ross, elegant and deliciously malignant; her two sons, Chiron (David Mendelsohn) and Demetrius (Chad Deverman), a couple of nasty spoiled brats if there ever were; and the emperor himself, played by Campbell as a sneering, childish autocrat; are nothing in villainy compared to Aaron, the Moor. Shawn Hamilton makes a banquet of this bad guy, one of Shakespeare’s remorseless characters, like Don John in “As You Like It” who live only to make mischief in the world. Perhaps a little overwritten, he is too bad to be true. Another anomaly is that, partly due to the acting and partly to the script, most of the laughs are generated by this coalition of evil. Oh, did I mention that Aaron also is Tamora’s lover, giving her a mixed-race baby who figures in the latter development of the plot? (Of course the nurse and midwife have to bite the dust in case they spill the beans to the emperor).
The body count piles up. Bassianus (Liam Vincent), the emperor’s brother and actually kind of a good guy, is one of the first to fall. The royal sons lust after his wife, the lovely Lavinia, beloved daughter of Titus, whom they rape and mutilate as soon as he is out of the way. This is the straw that breaks Titus’ back, mind and basic goodness. Anna Bullard gives an excellent portrayal of the hapless girl, done mostly in mime after they cut out her tongue. Two of Titus’ remaining sons are framed for Bassianus’ murder and executed, but not until their father has cut off one of his hands to ransom them. And so it goes, all done on Emily Greene’s stunning set of stone walls, studded with ladders, with Paloma Young’s interesting costumes occasionally spattered with blood.
There are a few false moves. The visually striking opening, with a couple of women in chadors mourning to a Middle Eastern melody, was evidently supposed to link the tale to the present day conflicts but the conceit goes nowhere after that. And doubling in the large cast leads to some confusion. Nicholas Pelczar, who plays Titus’ one remaining son, shows up near the end as a clown. He’s very good at both but the disguise is too transparent. And the indispensable Delia MacDougall is all over the place, as a Roman tribune, a Goth and the unfortunate nurse who delivers Tamora’s child. But all in all, Sass has done a remarkable job with this not-the-best of Shakespeare’s plays. “Rome is but a wilderness of tigers,” Titus says at one point. Cal Shakes sure makes them roar.