Titus Andronicus isn’t ever an easy watch with the piles of dead bodies, buckets of gore, cannibalistic pies and overt racism of Shakespeare’s telling of the worst of the Roman Empire. But if gore and more sounds appealing, then the New York Shakespeare Exchange’s production at HERE in Soho will not disappoint. A fine cast renders the egregious violence with as much sensitivity and nuance as is possible. There’s no stinting on the blood; indeed, there is even a “Violence Designer” (Cassie Dorland) listed in the production team. As one appalling act follows another, the play seems not too far from recent news events. In terms of how low humans can stoop, things haven’t changed much since ancient history. Revenge is a bitter motive and nowhere more than in this play.
Bringing Shakespeare to new audiences is the stated mission of the New York Shakespeare Exchange and the violence of Titus Andronicus is perhaps one reason it is a fairly accessible play. Here it’s also been adapted by Ross Williams who also directs to be a more digestible two hours or so. It’s not, however, one of Shakespeare’s more eloquent plays, so actors can’t rely on the script to convey the full range of emotions the murderous mayhem provokes. But the audience is never in any doubt about how Titus, played by the imposing Brendan Averett , feels about the bloody extremes of the play. His transition from triumphant general to a traumatized parent driven mad by grief is powerfully portrayed. Gretchen Egolf as the viscerally ruthless queen Tamora gave me goosebumps. While Vince Gatton’s Emperor Saturninus was a creepily craven dandy. Tamora’s feral sons Demetrius and Chiron, in the hands of Nathaniel P. Claridad and Ethan Itzkow, are suitably unhinged and dressed as hoody-wearing street punks you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. The role of their victim Lavinia is a tough one for any actor but Kate Lydic was even better the second part of the play when she has had her tongue cut out and has also had her hands cut off. (Did I mention it’s a gruesome play?)
Shakespeare waits to reveal until well into the play the central orchestrator of evil, Tamora’s slave/lover Aaron, here perceptively played by Warren Jackson. The 16th century racist attitudes of the play are cringingly bigoted and uncomfortably similar to prejudices still so prevalent today. His tender care for the baby he and Tamora conceive is touchingly poignant, despite the fact that the same character incited Tamora’s grown sons to rape and murder and casually cuts off a hand and a few heads himself.
All this horror takes place inside a mildewed circus tent (set design by Jason Lajka) clearly inspired by Shakespeare’s reference to the “carnival” of madness. But a Clown character who opens the action with a limp game of tag, and an odd decision to have a choreographed fight transitioning to a boy band-like synchronized dance give the production an uneasy start. The Clown (Kerry Kastin) hangs about the edges of the action with varying degrees of relevance; there are a few laughs even though someone aptly remarks, “Why dost thou laugh, it fits not with this hour?” Her presence lacks the conviction necessary to make her reflections on the violence really meaningful. A bizarre device of activating a grain chute every time a murder or violent act occurs is also out of place.
With video-taped beheadings and shooting rampages dominating current events, Titus Andronicus is a sobering reminder that the human race’s baser instincts are nothing new. But this production brings to the fore the personal conflicts that lurk behind such horrific violence and the terrible emotional price those that commit such acts must pay. Titus Andronicus is not an easy play but it delivers a level of catharsis we may welcome in this day and age.