BWW Review: Revenge is Never Sweet in Independent Shakespeare Co.'s TITUS ANDRONICUS
TITUS ANDRONICUS is one of Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedies. Characters are stabbed, beheaded, mutilated, raped, baked in a pie, and one is even buried up to his neck and left to die. At first glance it may not sound like an obvious choice for families who attend the Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival, and it definitely isn't one for "the youngest audience members" as the website says.
But the play's extreme violence does present a unique opportunity for parents to talk to their teens about revenge and the futility of starting down its destructive path. That is always a worthy conversation and if Shakespeare can provide an opening for understanding the dark side of human behavior then all the better.
To their credit, one of the things Independent Shakespeare Co. and its co-founders Melissa Chalsma and David Melville do extremely well is make Shakespeare approachable. Though the story is horrific, it also contains a surprising amount of humor, and they play that humor up in their signature style, staging scenes that spill off the stage and adding a contemporary sensibility that never fails to engage its diverse and all-encompassing audience. With its sobering message and a handful of excellent performances among a capable cast, ISC's provocative TITUS is making a big impression.
The story begins with a victorious Titus (David Melville) returning home to Rome after the ten year Goth war, bringing with him a small contingent of prisoners that includes the Goth Queen, Tamora (Sabra Williams), her three sons (Kelvin Morales as Chiron, Jack Lancaster as Demetrius, and Ben Anderson as Alarbus), and her secret lover, Aaron the Moor (Evan Lewis Smith). In Rome, the Emperor has recently died.
Chalsma opens the production with a contest and it is the perfect way to engage the audience and start the play on a high. The crowd is divided into three sections, each one tasked with cheering for one of three possible candidates to take over the crown: Saturninus (William Elsman), the Emperor's son, Titus, the new hero, and Bassianus (Daniel Jimenez), Titus' brother.
To no one's surprise, Titus is deemed the favorite but, in a surprising move, he turns down the crown in favor of Saturninus. What happens next sets up the game of revenge and seals the fate of everyone involved.
Titus kills one of Tamora's sons in retribution for the 21 (of 25) sons he lost in the war. Saturninus accepts the title of Emperor and says he will marry Titus' daughter Lavinia (Katie Powers-Faulk). Titus agrees but she and Bassianus are already set to be married and he refuses to let her go. Though the law is on Bassianus' side, Titus feels betrayed and starts a fight. He kills his son Mutius (Akshaya Pattanayak) for siding against him, Lavinia and Bassianus flee, and Saturninus angrily announces he will marry Tamora instead. Tamora now wants revenge on Titus for killing her son and she finds herself in the perfect situation to achieve her goal. With Aaron as her orchestrator, the atrocities begin.
This dynamic duo of evil - Tamora and Aaron - is on the offense for the better part of the play. A melodramatically sly Williams sashays around the stage like a bordello madam, needling Titus at every turn from her new position of safety. Smith glowers with undisguised rage, poised in a defiant stance that never softens, not even when his plots have been revealed and death is forthcoming. It would appear there is nothing but evil in him but for a small moment when the baby born out of his affair with Tamora is presented and he attempts to save it from being discovered by the Emperor. Otherwise, Smith gives a chilling performance.
As Titus, David Melville gets to play a character that is a constant contradiction. He has a soldier's swagger but the exhaustion from battle is etched into his face. As the deception in the play mounts, he alternates between being dazed, furious, vengeful, fearless, unhinged, wily, and uncontrollable. Melville being Melville, he does it with his usual eccentric flair. In a word, he's terrific.
The other ringer in the show is William Elsman, an intelligent actor whose skillful command of Shakespeare's language makes Saturninus a vastly intriguing figure. Elsman gives us a whiny, petulant man, prone to outbursts but charming and gallant, by turns, which makes the character much more interesting and memorable than usual.
Katie Powers-Faulk shows her mettle in an impressive performance in the challenging role of Lavinia. She's strong, but poignant to the point that what happens to her character on stage will plague you for days. She doesn't resort to playing the obvious but goes deeper to reveal the pain, frustration and anger underneath the humiliation. ISC favorite Richard Azurdia is strong as Titus' brother Marcus and Xavi Moreno once again proves that there are no small parts, only small actors, in an entertaining 12-line cameo as a Clown with some pigeons.
Scenic designer Caitlin Lainoff's sleek set is a play on black and white, with translucent corrugated panels on one half of the stage that form an eerie canvas for dripping blood sprayed from sliced throats.
Some of the costuming by Ying-Jung Chen works well, like the close cut gowns for Tamora and Lavinia, but Tamora's gold overlays disguise rather than flatter her figure. The initial gold chain panel is boxy and not at all sensual, although if the effect is to simulate a bird in a cage, it does do that. Her later apron-like chain overlay cuts the actress in half, making her look shorter than she is and again, not doing her figure any favors. It's unfortunate because the gowns themselves are lovely and very flattering. For a hedonistic woman like Tamora, any addition should enhance her assets. Less than that misses the mark.
The men fare better in their more practical looks and soldier gear, particularly the outfit that Titus wears in his swashbuckling return. The odd choice here is paisley togas draped over slacks and tunics for the Romans that look like they were made from, well, draperies. A muted color palette adds to the effect.
That aside, this is a Griffith Park Shakespeare offering that tells a necessary story and ISC doesn't hold back. A director walks a fine line with this kind of in-your-face material and Melissa Chalsma handles it with intelligence and as much sensitivity as possible. For my money, she's a smart woman directing a smart cast with a topic we all need to be smarter about. Getting even is never the answer. Shakespeare knew that and used his play to highlight the mess it makes of lives. I highly recommend seeing TITUS ANDRONICUS in Griffith Park while you can, since it isn't often done, if only to remind yourself of the dangers of seeking revenge.
July 28 - September 1, 2018
Independent Shakespeare Co.'s
Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival
More info: (818) 710-6306 or www.iscla.org
Photo credit: Grettel Cortes