Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, photo by Austin D. Oie.
Within the first half hour of the 3+ hour Titus Andronicus by Haven Theatre, actors moving naturally around the stage had snapped off three large pieces of wood facing, and I thought I was once again dealing with a show that would be frustrated by tech issues. That proved not to be the case (though I hope they manage to secure things better before someone gets hurt). No, what hurts this production is tonal inconsistency instilled by the director and exacerbated by some of the performances, including the lead actor.
Director Ian Damont Martin’s vision of Shakespeare’s most graphically bloody play with its brutal revenge plot incorporates so much silly comedy that sustaining the play’s darkness becomes difficult. Shakespeare himself, of course, used comedy to offset his uglier themes (Othello’s Iago, for example, is often hilarious as he plots the main character’s demise) and here his poetry is often couched in what could reasonably be called black comedy. But Martin’s often outlandish interpretations go to the heart of some of his characters, rendering them far less menacing than the Bard intended.
In this production we are introduced to an Emperor Saturninus (Christopher Wayland Jones) who is more of a child throwing tantrums than the vindictive leader who has two of Titus’s sons beheaded. (He is even shown in one scene having an actual tantrum, throwing himself on the floor and whining before collapsing into his wife’s lap and sucking his thumb.)
That wife, formerly the defeated Goth Queen Tamora (Michaela Petro), whose desperate and secret desire for vengeance against Titus for killing one of her children forms the core of the play, becomes an Iago-like comic villain rather than a bereaved mother angry about the loss of her son. She routinely breaks the fourth wall with facial expressions that elicit knowing laughter from the audience (Petro is gifted at this type of thing) as she coddles her emperor husband like a mother. It’s a fine performance by Petro—one of the best in the play—but it makes some of her actions, like handing Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Tarina Bradshaw) over to be raped and disfigured by her sons, very difficult to digest.
Those sons (Morgan Levanstein and Trevor Bates), and two of Titus’s sons as well (Benjamin Jenkins and James Lewis), also spend a good deal of time clowning around for laughs before their ugly deaths. As to Andrew Perez’s Moor, Aaron, whose private plotting leads to a grisly death in the original, Martin kills him off significantly early after downplaying his significance almost until the end.
Titus himself (Colin Jones) ironically could do with a little more humor in his deliveries. His clearly comic moments—such as his handling of Tamora and sons when they come to him disguised—sound pretty much the same as his righteous ones or his hurt and shocked ones, and many of them are painfully overacted. He is never less than perfectly clear in his intentions and phrasing, but the exaggerated style is a constant reminder that he is performing.
The best performances in the play belong to several women. In addition to Petro (whose character inexplicably arrives drunk to the final banquet scene), Lakecia Harris acquits herself well as Saturnine’s sister (originally his brother) Bassanius, whose love for Lavinia is both honorable and lustful. (That the couple are now lesbians glides easily into the play.) Bradshaw too is strong as Lavinia. Though her articulation in the early stages leaves something to be desired, her post-rape characterization is heartbreaking. Most powerful of all, though is Gabrielle Lott-Rogers as Marcus, Titus’s sister (originally brother) and one of the Tribunes of Rome. Lott-Rogers becomes the soul of the second act of the play as the actions of both Titus and Tamora devolve into chaos and bloodshed.
This ambitious but uneven Titus stands out for its nontraditional casting and its fight design (R&D Choreography) and handles its gruesome elements well. I can’t help wishing, though, that Martin had edited it a lot more. This is not one of Shakespeare’s greatest artistic achievements. His poetry (which in this early play was co-written with George Peele) does not stand up to his later works (or the contemporaneous Richard III). Without trimming, it makes for a very long evening.
Titus Andronicus is a Haven Theatre production now playing at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, IL, until Mar 14. The show runs approximately three hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.