The first warning Burbage Theatre Company’s Titus Andronicus was not to be the usual Shakespeare performance was seeing everyone in the front rows at a sold-out show covering themselves with dark green, plastic, 30-gallon trash bags because they were in the “splatter zone.” Although the play is notoriously Shakespeare’s bloodiest, Burbage presents the extraordinary goriness as an experience somewhere between a concert by GWAR and a “Sledge-O-Matic” routine by the comedian Gallagher.
Burbage hews more closely to the latter than to the former, as the audience was openly laughing at the bloodiest scenes despite excellent and shockingly realistic Grand Guignol-style special effects. Director Jeff Church – who was personally mopping up the blood from the floor during intermission – wrote in his “About the play” note, “Titus is about the commonplace cruelty, pain and prejudice that we exhibit and experience when living in a perpetual state of war. It is about the blurred line between justice and revenge, and the kind of manic mirth that stems from the latter.” What he means by “manic mirth” may well be that the audience is supposed to be laughing, and there is some textual basis for this: When the severed heads of Titus’ sons are delivered, provoking Titus to laughter and causing Titus’ brother Marcus to ask, “Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour,” Titus answers him, “Why, I have not another tear to shed…”
Titus is the second and last installment in a series at Burbage thematically linked by the notion of war, the previous their highly successful Happy Birthday, Wanda June by Kurt Vonnegut, a black satire intended to be hilarious. Vonnegut, a contemporary veteran of World War II writing in the time of the Vietnam War, intended audiences to be laughing, echoing the 18th Century quip of the famously atheistic Voltaire, “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.” Scholars can argue endlessly about what Shakespeare did or intended (and Richard Brucher has taken the opposing view), but my personal conviction is that he would not have expected audiences to laugh openly as he killed off more than a dozen characters and dismembered a half-dozen more on stage in Titus.
In his own lifetime and for a couple of centuries afterwards, Shakespeare’s plays were widely taken at face value without attempts to analyze them in any modern sense, and Titus was among his most popular and frequently performed plays. As English sportsmanship and fair play beginning in the 1740s codified even rules for bare-knuckle prize-fighting, themselves intended as a refinement of the gentlemen’s code for fighting duels, Titus fell out of favor as its body count made it seem ridiculous in the era of the Pax Brittanica.
Two factors have contributed to the very recent revival of interest in Titus, rescuing it from the backwaters of Victorian squeamishness. Firstly, Europe entered a sudden, shattering decline into barbarousness in the early 20th Century with World War I, characterized by brutal carnage that made the Roman Empire, the setting for Titus, look by contrast like the playing fields of Eton, while today the deliberate extermination of millions in the Nazi Holocaust is a standard part of the school curriculum and the Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS) beheads victims on YouTube. Secondly, themes of marginalization by race and gender have been viewed through a modern lens, particularly in the characters of Aaron the Moor, the lone black man in a white culture, and of Lavinia, literally denied a voice when her rapists cut out her tongue and cut off her hands so that she cannot name them. While it seems strange that Lavinia has become iconic in recent feminist theory, her extreme situation is arguably its epitome (pun intended).
Consistent with this hyper-modernist conception of Titus, Burbage makes the emphatically anti-traditional decision to not only cast a female, Rae Mancini, in the lead role of Titus, but to make the actual character female as well. This has a surprisingly profound effect on the psychology of the entire play, changing the relationship with Lavinia to that of mother and daughter rather than of father and daughter, and making the internecine rivalry with Tamora between mothers each seeking revenge for their dead children and trying to protect those who remain alive. Of course, in ultra-feminist theory the feelings of fathers and mothers toward their children should be the same, but everyone knows that is just not true: Titus as a mother instead of a father implicates a thoroughly different ethos in the minds of the audience, inevitably and necessarily so. Indeed, the tenderest expression of fatherly feeling in the Burbage version becomes that of Aaron for his infant son, despite Aaron being a pervasively evil character whose plotting is directly responsible for many of the murders and who explicitly regrets that he will die before he has an opportunity to do yet more evil. That’s a striking inversion of expectations. One cannot impute too much modern outlook to Titus, however, given its implicit approval of such practices as honor killing of rape victims “because the girl should not survive her shame.”
While one flirts with disaster to criticize Shakespeare and it is customary to say that Titus is among his most immature and weakest efforts, it is my view that there are only four characters who are not essentially cardboard cutouts – Titus, Tamora, Aaron, and Lavinia – and it is up to them to carry the play. Rae Mancini’s solid performance as the faithful warrior general “Titus” is unnervingly reminiscent of Hillary Clinton, albeit less cold-blooded but better at swordplay. Christin Goff is effective as the alternately distraught and remorseless “Tamora,” the Goth queen defeated by Titus and brought in captivity with her sons to Rome only to become the manipulative instrument of their mutual destruction. Allison Crews as “Lavinia” rises to the most difficult role, rendered mute and helpless, bloodied and mutilated, for the last half of the play, relying only on body language and expression.
Jason Quinn as “Aaron,” the consciously evil Moor who gets the best lines, is utterly outstanding with voice and elocution that thunders his outrage. While one can doubt whether Shakespeare four hundred years ago intended his other Moorish character Othello to be black in the racial sense we understand that to mean today, there is little question that Aaron is racially black: he refers to his own “fleece of woolly hair” and to his infant son as “you thick lipp’d slave.” In some ways Aaron is Shakespeare’s earliest great role, the proto-villain in whom we see the seeds of Othello‘s Iago, and whose unexpected depth of character is glimpsed through his realization that the birth of his infant son anchors him into the world in which heretofore he had felt rootless and rejected, alienated and outcast from the society of both Goths and Romans because of his race.
Roger Lemelin plays “Marcus,” the brother of Titus, who functions as conductor of the action. Aaron Morris plays “Lucius,” son of Titus who is the nominal hero of the play. Dillon Medina and Rico Lanni play “Bassianus” and new emperor “Saturninus,” respectively, the sons of the deceased emperor who become rivals over Lavinia and set in motion the enmity between the families. Andrew Iacovelli and James Lucey play “Demetrius” and “Chiron,” respectively, the sons of Tamora who murder Bassianus and then rape and mutilate Lavinia. David d’Andrea and Molly Greene play “Quintus” and “Martius,” respectively, the sons of Titus who are falsely framed for the murder of Bassianus. Chris Pelletier plays “Mutius,” the son of Titus who early objects to the claim on his sister Lavinia by the Emperor Saturninus. Liz Hallenbeck is the nurse who is killed by Aaron because she is a witness to the birth of his tellingly mixed-race son by Tamora. Bridget Anderson, Julia Bartoletti, Beatriz Lopez, Shannon Hartman, and Rachael Perry are the chorus.
No matter how thought-provoking and well performed, I cannot ignore my reservation that a version of Titus where the most gruesome scenes evoke outright laughter from the audience is in some way unsuccessful: Titus Andronicus simply is not Gallagher, and people are not watermelons. As Muriel Spark tautologically said in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, disparaging the Girl Guides in comparison to the black shirt fascists of Benito Mussolini who saw himself as reincarnating the Roman Empire of Titus and its bloodthirstiness, “For those who like that sort of thing,… that is the sort of thing they like.”
Titus Andronicus, directed by Jeff Church, Burbage Theatre Company at Aurora, 276 Westminster St, PVD. Thu (3/3, 3/17), Fri (3/4, 3/11, 3/18) 7pm, Sat (2/27, 3/12) 6pm. Approximately 2 hours including 10-minute intermission. Web: http://www.burbagetheatre.org/#!blank/yr03m Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BurbageTheatreCompany/ Tickets sales are strictly cash at the door, no cards. Reservations, but not advance sales, are available by e-mail: mailto:email@example.com?subject=Ticket%20Reservations On-street parking at meters is free after 6pm, with spaces often available on Westminster St, Greene St, and Dorrance St. Aurora is open daily from 5pm to city closing time (1am or 2am) and offers a full-service bar accepting both cash and cards. Web: http://www.auroraprovidence.com/