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article imageReview: CanStage tries to soften 'Titus Andronicus' brutality in Toronto Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jul 6, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - Not that I'm a fan of Trigger Warnings, but if any Shakespeare play really needs to be preceded by one, it's “Titus Andronicus”. Murder, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, racism — this early Bard tragedy is a grim celebration of meaningless atrocity.
Why Canadian Stage chose this as one of the plays for its normally family-friendly Shakespeare in High Park this year is, frankly, baffling. Titus Andronicus is so packed with gratuitous, incoherent violence and suffering that it helps you appreciate the mild, subtle restraint of the original Robocop. T.S. Eliot thought it was “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written,” and he may have been right, although a few of the Fringe shows I've seen in past years were worthy challengers to that title.
In CanStage's new production — which opened on Friday night and which alternates with As You Like It this year at the High Park Amphitheatre — director Keira Loughran does attempt to cushion the blow in her own way, by stylizing the gory moments. Red ribbons represent sprays of blood, lion masks in red sacks suggest severed heads and the onstage stabbings are obviously fake and bloodless. And any children who attend the play with their parents probably won't understand enough of the language to know what's going on anyway. But it isn't just kids who get traumatized by these things, so you still have to wonder what in Hamlet's name the CanStage folks were thinking.
Titus Andronicus is a revenge story of the most savage kind, one that Quentin Tarantino likely wishes he'd written. The cycle begins after the title Roman general (Sean Dixon) defeats the Goths in war and captures their queen, Tamora (played as a sexy, seductive femme fatale by Shauna Black): he has one of her sons executed as payback for the deaths of some of his sons in battle. Then, after marrying Emperor Saturninus (James Graham), Tamora plots with her secret Moor lover, Aaron (Beau Dixon), to have two of Titus' sons blamed and arrested for the murder of her brother-in-law (Alexander Plouffe), while her sons, the real murderers, ravish and dismember Titus' daughter Lavinia (Chala Hunter) for their own apparent amusement. When Titus finds out who's to blame for all this, he devises his own insane revenge plot on everyone, a climax that tops everything before it in both cruel brutality and utter absurdity. (A scene that was memorably spoofed on South Park, to boot.)
To Loughran's credit, she resists most urges to camp up the play or go all nudge-nudge-wink-wink ironic on the audience. It would be easy to do that, but she has the whole cast approach the material with a straight-faced sincerity that makes it seem almost feasible. That doesn't mean, of course, that the play makes more sense now. Why does Titus kill one of his sons on a whim in the first scene and threaten the others, only to grieve for two others to the point of madness shortly afterwards? How could Tamora's sons be so dumb as to think Lavinia wouldn't find some way to identify them as her victimizers? And so on. There are certain moments that can't help but provoke uneasy laughter from the audience, such as the borderline-slapstick moment when one of Titus' sons trips into the stage trap door.
Loughran purportedly sets the drama in medieval Japan, which explains Angela Thomas' ninja-like costumes for Tamora's sons, but both artists can't resist the temptation to modernize the Goths in the play as, well, goths. By the end, the wheel of anachronism is turned full circle when Titus busts out an electric guitar and turns the final scene into a rock-and-roll slaughterhouse. But Loughran also adds interesting choreography choices here and there. The opening of the hunting scene has all the players mimicking wild animals (which also foreshadows the animalistic violence to come), and Lavinia's “spelling out” of her tormenters' names on the ground is turned into a sort of macabre dance. African-like drum music by Sam Sholdice underscores some of the scenes anticipating war and violence, and Aaron even leads the audience into a clap-along during his opening soliloquy.
This is a production that the villains ultimately steal from the heroes — not to take away from Sean Dixon's decent performance as Titus. He gets Titus' descent into lunacy generally right, without going over the top, and his delivery of “When will this fearful slumber end?” conveys the correct feeling of sudden numbness. But this version of the play really belongs to Aaron and Tamora, who express their relationship here with unsubtle physicality. (Also good is Jan Alexandra Smith, who adds more soul to Titus' sister, Marcas, than the tacked-on character probably deserves.)
As motiveless malignity Aaron, Beau Dixon heightens the Moor's inexplicable evil with charm to spare and a diabolical glee, especially in the second half: his renditions of lines such as “O how this villainy / Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it!” give you the sense that Aaron's about ready to burst with love of his crimes. (It also makes his cootchie-cooing to his infant son all the more funny and disturbing.) Black's Tamora is equally strong, bouncing effortlessly between blatant manipulation and taking the audience into her confidence. Loughran often has Black move to the lower level at the front of the stage to deliver asides like, “I'll find a day to massacre them all,” directly to the audience; sometimes it works, although after a while, you almost start expecting Tamora to pull out a cigar and do a Groucho Marx impression.
Overall verdict: The fault, dear reader, is not in the production, but in the play itself, that it's a mess. Loughran and company do the best they can with this strange and brutal script, and I'd recommend it mainly as a curio — a chance to see Shakespeare's worst play done live.
Just don't bring the kids. Or anyone with a history of violent trauma and flashbacks. Or... anyone who can't handle it, really.
Titus Andronicus runs on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays at Toronto's High Park Amphitheatre until August 31. Admission is pay-what-you-can ($20 suggested).
More about Shakespeare, Theatre, Toronto, High park, canadian stage
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