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Review - Titus Andronicus

"We began this production with the simplest and most time-honored of theatrical practices," writes New York Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis. "We were looking for the next great role for Jay O. Sanders."

The versatile, bear-like character actor he writes of has been offering memorable supporting performances on New York stages for over thirty years; from classical comic roles like Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night to more contemporary fare, like his essay of a liberal lawyer disillusioned with the Democratic Party in Richard Nelson's Apple Family trilogy. An Off-Broadway fixture, he was last seen on Broadway giving an uproariously funny turn as Pygmalion's Alfred P. Doolittle.

But gifting an actor with a chance to play the title role in Titus Andronicus is not exactly the same as offering him Hamlet or Macbeth. This infrequently produced Shakespeare piece is believed to be the bard's first tragedy; a troublesome early work where the playwright was writing in the style of the day's popular "revenge plays," which excited audiences with plenty of on-stage violence. The complicated plot involving a fight for the emperorship of ancient Rome isn't easy to follow and serves mostly as a table setting for a parade of violent actions (beheadings, behandings, rape, cannibalism and the like) that highlight the evening.

The play begins with Sanders' Titus, a Roman general, returning from victory over the Goths, bringing along as prisoners Tamora, their queen (Stephanie Roth Haberle), and her sons Demetrius (William Jackson Harper), Chiron (Patrick Carroll) and Alarbus (Frank Dolce). Titus' son Lucius (Rob Campbell) insists that Alarbus, the oldest, be sacrificed in retribution for the deaths of so many Roman warriors. Dolce, however, is actually a young actor, making his being named the oldest a bit confusing. Also confusing is that he additionally appears as sons of Lucius and Titus.

Tamora maneuvers herself to marry the new emperor, Saturnine (Jacob Fishel), while maintaining an affair with her servant, Aaron (Ron Cephas Jones), who convinces Demetrius and Chiron to rape Titus' daughter, Lavinia (Jennifer Ikeda), cutting off her tongue and hands for good measure. And so it goes until the wild final bloodbath where director Michael Sexton has the company splashing bags and buckets filled with the red stuff all over each other. The sight is more carnival-like than grotesque.

Sanders makes a feast out of Titus, starting as a gregariously triumphant leader who becomes unbearably sorrowful to see what has become of his daughter (lovely, delicate work by Ikeda) and gradually turns furiously mad. Haberle's Tamora is a worthy adversary, taking subtle delight in the torturing of her enemies, with Jones' Aaron a crafty comrade.

Costume designer Cait O'Conner dresses the cast in a contemporary assortment of military wear, business suits and and women's wear and, at the start of the production, set designer Brett J. Banakis has place a neatly-stacked pile of plywood panels center stage. At first, a panel is removed from the stack and placed elsewhere for each dead body but by the second half the practice is abandoned. They're also used to display simple, ritualistic-looking drawings and words. Battle emblems, if you will.

While both the play and the production have their quirks, the evening - if this is the right word - always entertains. And at only $15 for all tickets, the Public LAB series once again provides an affordable opportunity to see high quality theatre professionals at work.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Jay O. Sanders and Jennifer Ikeda; Bottom: Stephanie Roth Haberle and Ron Cephas Jones.

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While you probably wouldn't expect period recordings of "Let's Do It" and "St. Louis Woman" to be part of the pre-show soundtrack for a family friendly production of Snow White, director/choreographer Austin McCormick's Company XIV has never been a group to provide the expected.

Making their home in an unnoticeable building on an unnoticeable block in a residential section of Brooklyn, Company XIV has been enthralling those in the know with their multimedia theatre/dance pieces that lean toward an elegant eroticism. Remarkably, they manage to engage in a dark and subtly sexual telling of the Grimm tale without being inappropriate for children. The young ones in the audience the evening I attended were quiet and attentive throughout the performance and seemed very enthused while applauding at the conclusion.

Jeff Takacs, who penned the text, also plays the ringmaster-type narrator who advises, "The gold you will see is just gilt. The kingdom and forest is plastic and steel. But the dancing feet are real."

But despite its phoniness, Zane Pihlstrom's set, highlighted by a silvery tree and a crystal chandelier, makes a lovely environment, enhanced by Olivera Gajic's costumes which has most of the company - men and women - dressed in corsets and primarily utilizes a palate of black, white and red.

The red is worn with dazzling presence by Laura Careless, who acts and dances the evil queen with captivating confidence and expression. There are times McCormick has her moving her body with lightning-fast physicality, only matched when she's paired with ensemble dancer Davon Rainey. Corey Tatarczuk's projections place nightmare mirror images of her on the floor, to which she reacts with pained madness as they taunt her with the news that she is not the fairest of all. The story has her delving into French, Spanish and Russian characters, which she does with comic brio, but her bravura moment is saved for the end, when the queen is fitted for freshly-molded iron shoes that send her wildly dancing to ease the pain of her scorched feet.

Snow White is played by the petite aerialist Gracie White, who performs striking acrobatic feats on a pair of hanging silk cloths and on a circular hoop suspended in air. (There are no dwarves in this telling and Snow spends much of her time lounging in the forest.) When the prince (Joseph McEachern) arrives, he is performing tricks on the ground inside a spinning hoop. Ensemble member Sam Hilbelink also impressively partakes in the silk climbing and tumbling. The varied recorded score uses classical, jazz and folk themes, with beautiful soprano tones sung live by Lauren-Michelle.

Takacs' text warns against the dangers of vanity, both in the queen's determination to kill Snow White for the sin of being fairer than her, and in Snow White's innocent susceptibility to the promise of becoming more beautiful. The queen nearly kills her three times, once by luring her with a slimming corset (which she intends to suffocate her with) and the next time with a poisoned comb. The inspiration for using a poisoned apple comes from the knowledge that the ingénue had been pretty much starving herself with little to eat during the winter months.

"Like nicotine and drink, children," the narrator warns," beauty to the vain only intensifies its thirst for more."

Photos by Steven Schreiber: Top: Gracie White and Laura Careless; Bottom: Laura Careless and Davon Rainey.

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From This Author Ben Peltz