Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Review: At New Moon Theatre's TITUS, Tamora Gets Hers 'Sonny Side Up'

Probably the best (of the few) productions of TITUS ANDRONICUS was the 1999 film directed by Julie Taymor. Anthony Hopkins, donning his apron from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, was a witty choice as "Titus," and Jessica Lange, years before jumping with abandon into the excesses of AMERICAN HORROR STORY, was a stunning "Tamora, Queen of the Goths." The visuals, typically "Taymor," were imaginative and impressive. Yet, by the film's conclusion, one thing was obvious about Shakespeare's TITUS (wildly popular in its day, but largely dismissed by modern audiences): The Bard jettisoned poetry for gore and special effects. That is also the direction that John Maness and his eager group of actors has taken New Moon Theatre Company's latest production at Theatre Works.

While watching this production, I remembered those enjoyable reprobates "The King" and "The Duke" in Mark Twain's THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN -- and particularly their advertisements for THE ROYAL NONESUCH. Realizing that a potential audience "ain't up to Shakespeare," the two assure themselves of a "standing room only" crowd by appealing to man's baser nature. With a production of TITUS, what's a director to do? Mr. Maness doesn't just "ice the cake," he glops it on -- there are zombies lurching all over the stage and looking like rejects from a THRILLER video, blood spurting from slashed throats, simulated acts of rape, and -- oh, yes -- a notable lack of subtlety. However, that's really part of the appeal of this play; it plays out on a grim, slanting apron before a graffiti-adorned wall with all the ambience of a MAD MAX landscape (with just a touch of Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash").

There are some inventive touches here, and one of the most welcome is the addition of a ROCKY HORROR-type narrator (wittily played by James Dale Green), who mercifully cuts the proceedings short with CLIFF'S NOTES-type summations of scenes that would otherwise have had audience members squinting at their watches. His highly entertaining, contemporaneous comments are a joy -- and a wise decision on the part of Director Maness. Because the proceedings on stage are played straight, the narrator's "knowing wink" is a kind of release valve -- it's okay to laugh at this representation of humanity at its most horrible.

A problem with this Roman revenge tragedy is that we don't feel good about ourselves when it's over. (Oddly enough, I felt the same way about the recent production of CARRIE: So much nastiness dominates and so little that is good survives.) When Gregory Szatkowski's "Marcus" (Titus' brother) and Steven Brown's "Lucius" (the lucky surviving son) have their relatively sane, straightforward moments on stage, they seem to be crying out for a different play; everyone else would have Dante carving out a new circle in Hell. Even Gregory Boller's tragic hero, in his foolish adherence to playing by the rules, is not averse to killing his own son (though later he cries out against the killing of a fly -- one of the Bard's weirdest conceits).

The Goths themselves are a shockingly amoral, libido-driven lot. Erin Shelton's ferocious "Tamara" is a hop-skip-and-jump from such entertaining characters as Acquanetta's ridiculous High Priestess in TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN. When her son is sacrificed by Titus at the beginning of the play, her inner Machiavelli is released with a vengeance; and at her side is the duplicitous Moor "Aaron" (well played by Jeramie Simmons). Tamara's cretinous, libidinous sons are comically and cruelly interpreted by Gabe Beutel-Gunn and Gabriel Corry. To contend with these, Titus has to get his own hands (or whatever hand he has left) dirty, and when he turns his attention to the preparing meat pies, the title HELL'S KITCHEN takes on a new interpretation (the fact that I had just the night before seen THE GREAT BRITISH BAKING SHOW is ironic, but beside the point).

Some directorial touches work extremely well.-- the bleak music intonations, the effective lighting (especially when characters pair off to speak their asides), the use of the sound booth to double as a balcony, the "sound" coming out of Tamara's mouth as she pretends to be the "Goddess of Revenge"). However, some of those body parts strewn about the stage require double takes (at one point, a tongueless, handless "Lavinia" -- who makes CARRIE's plight seem like a hangnail -- picks up a body part with her teeth: I wanted to yell "Fetch").

TITUS is a play in which tastelessness supplants " good taste," but the end result is, oddly, . . . fairly tasty. Mr. Maness and his troupe will not bore you; and there are some surprising touching moments (Mr. Boller's gruff "Titus" has tender Lear-like moments with his unfortunate daughter), and some scenes (such as Titus directing arrow-driven missives to the Gods) are Shakespeare at his most vivid. Jared Graham is the self-absorbed, preening "Saturninus" (he sports more rings than Elizabeth Taylor collected during all her marriages); Evan McCarley, a hapless "Bassianus"; and Lyric Malkin, a Cordelia-like "Lavinia" (until her lines -- and limbs -- are cut). This Halloween-worthy effort closes November 8.

Related Articles View More Memphis Stories

From This Author - Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)