Monday, September 9, 2019

Titus Andronicus (The Southern California Shakespeare Festival 2019 Production) Theatre Review

The Southern California Shakespeare Festival is celebrating its fifteenth season with a production of Titus Andronicus, one of William Shakespeare’s earliest and most violent plays. It is a play of misplaced loyalty and patriotism, with Titus putting Rome and Saturninus before his own family, with deadly results. It is a play of horror, despair, deceit and revenge. It is a play for our times. And, perhaps to emphasize just that, this production sets the play in modern day, even employing the use of three screens to show news reports of the action. While setting Shakespeare’s plays in modern times often introduces many problems, it works quite well in this production.

The production opens with news footage playing on the three screens, presenting some background information, such as a report that the emperor has died. One of the television personalities opines that what is needed is an emperor who cares about the common people. It is then that soldiers lead their prisoners in, the prisoners having their heads covered and hands tied. Titus (Matthew Reidy) has red makeup on his face, giving the impression that he is perhaps most at home in bloody battle. The queen of the Goths, Tamora (Linda Bisesti) is one of the prisoners, and she kneels as she pleads for her son’s life. Titus is excited, seeming to be in his element. Tamora and her two other sons, who are downstage from the execution and thus closer to the audience, look away as the eldest son is executed upstage. It is interesting that we feel for them at this moment, that they exhibit qualities that perhaps we ourselves want to. But we in the audience do not look away, and so maybe we are guilty of a certain blood lust ourselves. But we can’t quite fault Titus for wanting them to suffer, for he has lost two sons himself at the hands of the Goths. Matthew Covalt as Demetrius is particularly good in that moment, and I love his delivery of “To quit the bloody wrongs upon her foes.”

The screens are used again so that Saturninus and Bassianus can address the masses. And when the lights come up fully, Saturninus (Alfonso Ramirez) and Bassianus (Larry Mayorquin) stand before us, in suits, two politicians on opposing sides, while Marcus (Michael P. Thomas) stands upstage center, his voice having a slight echo as he speaks to the audience, a nice effect. Then when Saturninus is made emperor, he takes his place upstage center. On his “set our prisoners free,” Tamora goes to Titus to have her hands unbound, which is interesting. Interesting that she chooses to have him do it, like she is already attempting to regain some authority with him, just a hint of taunting him with her newfound freedom. And when Saturninus chooses Tamora as his wife, she gives a little laugh, like she is already seeing how fortune might turn in her favor and lead to her revenge on Titus. It is a really good moment, and Linda Bisesti is excellent. Titus now appears in military dress uniform, and Lavinia (Sofia Levi) is in a white dress, stressing her purity and innocence. Because this is a modern telling of the story, Titus uses a pistol to kill his son Mutius. Marcus speaks softly upon seeing Mutius’ body, in contrast to Titus, who is explosive, like his words and actions are already getting away from him, carrying him along a path from which it will be impossible to return. On his “and bury me the next,” he tosses a couple of coins to the floor for his son’s burial. And though the play has a modern setting, the coins are still placed on the body’s eyes.

When we next see Tamora, she is wearing a dress, clearly already at home in her new role. On her “massacre them all” speech, she steps off the stage just in front of the audience, and out of the lights, which is perfect, for here she reveals her darker desires. And I love her delivery of “I will not be denied” to Saturninus. It is really that moment that you know she is a force that will bring havoc down on Titus and his family, without needing the official help of Saturninus. When Aaron (Kris Dowling) enters at the beginning of Act II, it is in darkness, which is also perfect. This can be a tough character for those looking for nuance and reason, for he is a villain at every moment except when it comes to his newborn son. What has led him to take this path? He seems to be a villain who enjoys being a villain, causing harm just for the joy of causing harm. And so he intrigues us. When he urges Demetrius and Chiron (Richard Pluim) to take Lavinia “by force,” they at first do not embrace that course of action. Rather, it seems they consider it, but not seriously, at least not yet, another excellent moment. Though Chiron and Demetrius do soon perform these horrible acts, and are thus responsible for them, the idea was not theirs. So for a moment those in the audience have hope that they will reconsider this bloody course of action. (By the way, Demetrius reminds me a bit of Malachai from the film version of Children Of The Corn.)

Lavinia displays some sass, some spunk and some attitude in this production, which is interesting. When Chiron and Demetrius re-enter, it is as Lavinia and Bassianus are exiting, and so their entrance forces Lavinia and Bassianus back on stage. Though guns are present on stage at several moments throughout this production, they are fired only a couple of times, and blades are still used in many scenes. It is with a blade that Bassianus is killed, while Lavinia watches, aghast, her sassiness gone in an instant. Her screams offstage tell us precisely what horrors she is being subjected to, and are completely effective. The pit where Bassianus’ body is left and where Quintus and Martius end up is done in an interesting way. The pit is at floor level, a light inside it revealing those people inside. When Lavinia next enters, it is in darkness, for she is still caught in the dark place created by Aaron, Chiron and Demetrius. As the lights go up, we see her clothes are bloody. She moans and cries as Marcus tries to help her.

News reports on the screens tell us that Quintus and Martius are awaiting trial for the murder of Bassianus. It is then that we see a different side of Titus, in despair for his sons’ fate. He kneels during his speech, and when he says that he has never wept before, we believe him. Titus gives a great delivery of the lines when he tells Lucius it wouldn’t matter if the tribunes did hear him, a moment that marks a change in him. By the way, several characters that are male in the text are female in this production, including Lucius (Amber Bonasso). So the line “Why, ‘tis no matter, man: if they did hear” becomes “‘Tis no matter, Lucius, if they did hear.” And when Titus asks “What shall we do,” he truly is asking the question. He is overcome, and for once does not clearly see the path before him. It is a moving moment. Aaron uses an electric saw to remove Titus’ hand upstage center, and blood squirting up further sells the action, as does Titus’ pained scream. Then, before Act III Scene ii, newscasts tell us that months have passed and that Titus’ sanity has been called into question. Marcus gets a golf club and demonstrates for Lavinia how she might use it to write her attackers’ names. Then, as she slowly writes their names, they appear on the screens behind her. Michael P. Thomas delivers an excellent performance as Marcus, and is particularly good during his soliloquy. The golf clubs are used again in place of bows and arrows, though Titus still uses the word “archery.” But perhaps the most modern prop used in this production is the cell phone that Saturninus speaks into for his speech at the beginning of Act IV Scene iv.

When Aaron is led into the Goth camp, his clothes and face are bloody. Lucius at one point hands Aaron’s baby to a member of the audience. As I mentioned earlier, this scene provides a moment when the audience can feel for Aaron, and Kris Dowling really makes the most of it. He delivers a good part of one of his speeches while a noose is around his neck upstage, an effective image. When Tamora and her sons enter to play upon Titus’ supposed madness, they are dressed in red robes and are masked. Titus, of course, is not fooled for a moment, and I particularly love his delivery of “how like the empress’ sons they are.” Titus also displays a wonderful smile after Tamora exits, leaving her two disguised sons behind. It is also interesting, and somewhat strangely comforting, to see Lavinia take some joy in watching her father tell Chiron and Demetrius their fate. Matt Reidy is absolutely fantastic as Titus here.

Before the final scene, there is a news report about the impending dinner, which is called a dinner event. And indeed it is an event. When Titus enters, he is dressed in a chef’s outfit and is pushing a dinner cart. He and Lavinia are cheerful, which is deliciously twisted, considering the meal they are serving. This last scene moves quickly. Marcus’ big speech is presented on television screens, as red light bathes the stage. Lucius moves upstage center to deliver her final speech, but the performance actually concludes with news reports in support of Lucius becoming the new emperor, an interesting touch that was appreciated by the audience.

This production of Titus Andronicus was directed by Robert Shields. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, which comes at the end of Act III Scene i. Including intermission, the performance is approximately two hours forty-five minutes. The play has been running at the Studio Theatre at Cal Poly Pomona. However, yesterday’s performance was the final one at that location. This coming weekend it shifts to the School of Arts and Enterprise in Pomona for two performances. Visit the Southern California Shakespeare Festival website for more information and schedule.

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