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Review: 'Titus Andronicus' at Kitchen Dog Theater

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Never mind calling EMS: Christina Vela and Joe Nemmers with a bleeding heart in Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus is the high-minded snuff film of Shakespeare’s tragedies. It’s grisly and overblown. It declaims stern speeches while slipping in blood and falling on its face. Remember: It’s Shakespeare’s very first shot at writing a classic tragedy. The new Kitchen Dog Theater staging — a co-production with Southern Methodist University’s drama department — significantly compresses the play, “exoticizes” it by transplanting it to pre-Columbian Latin America and, in general, ramps up the humor and horror until . . .  until there’s relatively little tragic feeling left, actually.

If there was any to begin with. Titus is a snuff film that we like to think is ennobled by Shakespeare’s language and drama and by the Stoic traditions of the play’s ancient Romans whom the Elizabethans esteemed as wise and tragic models. Still, much of the play’s force and theatricality — really, its raison d’etre — comes from the sheer amount of butchery onstage. Titus is a Roman war hero who rejects being crowned, letting Saturninus and the defeated Goth queen Tamora run the empire — only to have them turn on him, determined to crush his entire family. It’s the classic Sly-Stallone-slow-burn-to-rampaging-revenge story: Think Rambo but with a lot more eloquence. After the infamous rape and mutilation of Lavinia, his daughter, Titus finally responds with a baked-and-chopped-up-children pie that Sweeney, sorry, Titus serves his tormentors.

Having just produced Psychos Never Dream — which also featured great splashes of gore — the Kitchen Dogs would seem to have blown out their budget this season on gallon drums of fake blood. A special sale item at Costco.

Upfront: I have read about successful stagings of Titus Andronicus (Peter Brook’s in 1956, Deborah Warner’s in 1988) but must take their success on faith, having never actually seen one, not even one that’s simply been consistent. This includes the slow, extravagant Julie Taymor film and Richard Griffin’s ingenious low-budget horror movie (in which Shakespeare’s Romans are corporate execs and his Goths are, well, goths).

The difficulty isn’t the bloodshed. It’s always been Shakespeare’s erratic and unstable script, particularly the unintentionally laughable nature of some of the carnage. Titus undoubtedly points forward to King Lear, Hamlet and Cymbeline in its treatment of madness, vengeance and stoic loss. Yet more than 60 years ago, scholar J. Dover Wilson spoke for a long line of critics, theatergoers and directors when he threw up his hands and called the whole thing “a huge joke.”

Of course, several scenes do feature gallows humor as a nervous release valve. When the evil emperor Saturninus tells Titus that Titus can have his captured son freed at the cost of a lopped-off hand — oh, any old lopped-off hand from the Andronicus clan will do — every family member eagerly volunteers, often raising his or her hand as they quarrel over who’ll have the honor of losing it.

Presumably, Shakespeare’s more learned audience members recognized and appreciated the play’s allegiance to the noble blood-and-guts traditions of Seneca’s tragedies as well as the Bard’s classical allusions. (It’s one sign of the playwright’s youth: As in Love’s Labor’s Lost, Shakespeare is being consciously classicist, showing off his reading.) A characteristic example: Rather than rush to the tortured and bleeding Lavinia’s aid, Titus’ brother (here, turned into his sister Marcius) pauses to quote Ovid at length on the rape of Philomel. Mercifully, the Kitchen Dog adaptation leaves out the more explicit scene in which Lavinia actually tries to get her clueless dad to read the relevant passages from Ovid.

All that’s for the learned folk. We groundlings eagerly wait for the next bit of ultraviolence. Life is cheap, our modern age is as brutal as the Elizabethan (or the Mayan), laughs are welcome.

Or maybe not so welcome. Once the snickers start, they slop — like blood — into everything. Almost anything can get tainted with camp — and lose much of its emotional impact. Surely, Lavinia’s rape isn’t meant to be funny (although her tormentors get in some cruel groaners at her expense). What, then, of the ungainly and faintly ridiculous scene in which Marcius finally figures out what any child could have sussed in 10 minutes — that the pathetic, tongueless Lavinia can reveal the identity of her attackers by holding a stick in her mouth and scrawling their names in the sand?

As a result, some directors — like Julie Taymor — push the entire play into a kind of high Roman austerity to chill out the silliness — and risk denaturing the play entirely. Or they go the other way into outright camp — despite the lack of evidence that Titus was ever considered a hoot by the Elizabethans. They loved it, but they loved bear-baitings, too, and they took those seriously. They bet on them.

Directed by Christopher Carlos and adapted by Leah Spillman and Lee Trull, the Kitchen Dog Titus goes at everything with, well, both barrels. The Spillman-Trull adaptation transposes the play to the Mesoamerican city of Tikal — with the bloodletting rituals and human sacrifice of the Mayan empire standing in for the Roman empire’s martial spirit. And with “jaguars” and “pumas” filling in for Titus’ “wilderness of tigers” (as he describes Rome).

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Nemmers as Titus and Rukhami Desai as his mutilated daughter, Lavinia

The fit isn’t perfect. For one thing, translating Shakespeare’s Latin phrases into Spanish doesn’t make historical sense (Columbus wasn’t set to arrive for five or six centuries). For another, designer Stephanie Slevin has given us a Rainforest Cafe, with a Mayan temple ruin. But when the Mayans lived in Tikal, they wouldn’t have been ruins.

What’s more, the transposition as a whole seems somewhat at odds with the expressed purpose (in Colby Peck’s program note and in Lee Trull’s blog post) of bringing Titus home to contemporary viewers. It’s certainly a novel take, but what does it add that necessarily makes these people appear more like us?

As for the direction, Carlos seems to have taken his full-tilt approach from his days with Teatro Dallas, which annually features blood-and-high-melodrama for Dia de los Muertos. To the show’s benefit, he delivers three terrific villains: Christina Vela as Tamora, her real-life husband John Flores as Saturninus and Jamal Gibran Sterling as Aaron, her Moorish (here, Olmec) lover and henchman.

The sexual, amoral charge that Vela brings to everything is more energizing and startling than Cameron Cobb’s fake blood and organs.  With the right director, she could be our most chilling and remorseless Lady Macbeth since Lisa Schmidt at the Undermain. As her despotic emperor, John Flores unashamedly ups the campiness, but his Charles Laughton-ish affectations are undeniably entertaining. You gotta love his Dr. Seuss-like crown.

Sterling takes the opposite tack. His Aaron is fresh, open and unaffected. Without any real motivation to his violent whims, he has no tormented inner psychology to explore, no Iago-ish sense of grievance. So his Aaron has an enthusiastic kind of open-faced innocence to him. Why not just kill everyone you can?  He’s actually likable. (Spillman and Trull should have trimmed his final speech, though. It says the same thing five different ways: Aaron’s only regret is not getting away with 10,000 more wicked deeds.)

All of this is fun, but fun with violence isn’t enough to justify Titus — even a cut-down, streamlined, jungled-up Titus. Otherwise, it’s little different from Herschel Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast or Monster A Go Go. It’s just a way to separate theatergoers from their ticket money with the promise of onstage shock.

So that burdens Joe Nemmers in the lead role with most of the play’s tragic weight and redemptive purpose, and maybe in 20 years Nemmers could pull it off. Titus needs a sense of weathered grandeur — this is a warrior who’s earned his honors, whom the average folk would immediately esteem as emperor. And the young, buff, muscular Nemmers doesn’t have that yet.

He also seems to have been directed to look stern and bellow his lines, which is pretty much what he does. In fact,  his most entertaining scene comes when he plays like mad Hamlet to fool Tamora. At last, Nemmers gets to loosen up and have some sardonic fun — ending, of course, with two satisfying executions.

This isn’t meant to saddle Nemmers with the production’s failure. As I noted, I’ve never seen anyone salvage Shakespeare’s script and justify staging this rarity. It’s just that Nemmers is front and center for what this Titus lacks as a tragedy. It’s got energy, it’s got a degree of ingenuity. It’s got lots of terror, and one could perhaps overlook the humor spillage that threatens to make everything into a joke. But everything wouldn’t be a joke if we cared for any of the characters beyond the pathetic victims. There’s no sense of identification.

Forgive the pun. There’s no heart.

* A sidenote: It’s practically worth the price of admission to any Kitchen Dog production just to hear artistic director Tina Parker open the evening. Tina gives great curtain.

“Whoo-hooo! It ain’t gonna be about no Odd Couple here!” she shouted before Titus began. “You all shoulda brought a splash guard,” she laughingly warned the first row. “Cuz it’s just like Gallagher up in this piece!”

Other companies should hire her to introduce their shows.

  • Christie

    Jerome, I always appreciate your thoroughness and insight. But I just wanted to say that the Mayans (and Romans for that matter) didn’t speak English either. The Spanish as well as the facial tattoos in Titus were meant as a device to differentiate between the two tribes/families/cities; Tikal and Uxmal. Mayan cities operated as independent city-states and just as English in our country is very different in inflection, accent, idioms and slang from region to region, it was common for Mayan cities to have their own dialect.
    I do appreciate your Lady M comment. Maybe someone will read that and offer me the role.

  • http://www.artandseek.org Jerome Weeks

    Thanks very much for writing. You have a point. The Mayans and Romans didn’t speak English, and what is said on stage is something of an accepted theatrical convention, as when all those movie actors playing Nazis somehow have British accents and we don’t object.

    It’s a minor point in the review, but the historical relationship between some of Shakespeare’s characters speaking English while some speak Latin is different from some of them speaking English and some speaking Spanish.

    That is, for his audience, Shakespeare’s use of Latin evoked an old, classic, revered language and culture. On the other hand, English and Spanish are, more or less, contemporaneous. Much of Kitchen Dog’s production — its attention to set and costume design — was meant to evoke an exotic, ancient world. So when the ‘goth’ characters spoke Spanish, it was a little disrupting to that illusion.