Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Titus Andronicus" - Bloody and Powerful

Review by Judd Hollander and Cynthia Leathers
Photo by Joan Marcus

Titus Andronicus is perhaps the ultimate Shakespeare morality tale – and indeed, the bloodiest and most violent – about the repayment of past actions and the danger of blind obedience, a cautionary warning of how vengeance can destroy a person from inside. And The Public Theater's production of Titus, part of their PublicLab series, is literally steeped in blood by the play's end, with director Michael Sexton leaving no one onstage unspattered.

In ancient Rome, General Titus Andronicus (Jay O. Sanders) returns home after a long and successful military campaign against the Goths. Among his captives is Tamora the Goth Queen (Stephanie Roth Haberle) and several of her sons. As is the custom, Titus prepares to sacrifice Tamora's son Alarbus (Frank Dolce) to honor the memory of the Roman soldiers who have fallen in battle, despite the Queen's tearful pleas to Titus to spare her child.

Titus is so trusted by the people of Rome that he is asked by his brother Marcus (Sherman Howard) to choose between Saturnine (Jacob Fisher) or Bassianus (Daoud Heidami), both sons of the late Emperor, to be the next ruler of the Empire, after Titus turns down the position himself. When he chooses Saturninus, the new sovereign claims Tamora as his wife, a position the former captive gladly accepts; but only after Saturninus first picks and then rejects Titus' daughter Lavinia (Jennifer Ikeda), who has long been in love with Bassianus. But Saturninus' initial choice of Lavinia puts Titus' duty to the Empire at odds with his love for his family.

It quickly becomes clear Tamora has far more in mind than simply becoming Empress. Indeed, she quickly begins to wield her power in order to revenge herself on Titus for the death of Alarbus. Helped by her lover, a Moor named Aaron (in a wonderfully villainous turn by Ron Cephas Jones), Tamora soon orchestrates the death of Bassianus and fixes the blame on two of Titus' sons. With Lavinia being savagely mutilated in the process, the resulting horror of these events seem to push Titus beyond the edge of reason. But hope remains as Lucius (Rob Campbell), Titus' sole remaining son, banished from Rome after his failed attempt to help his brothers, has amassed an army and plans to restore the family honor, and obtain justice for those wronged and vengeance for the dead.

Sanders makes a very good and surprisingly multi-layered Titus. When first seen, Titus seems little more than a loyal soldier. Yet when tragedy strikes, he becomes alternatively filled with rage, anger, pity, hatred, and most of all, sorrow. His reactions when he beholds what his been done to Lavinia are particularly affecting. Also, in a refreshing twist to the Shakespeare disguise ploy, Saunders shows Titus to be far more than the simple fool his enemies ultimately believe him to be.

Haberle turns in a brilliant performance as Tamora, a queen and a mother determined to have vengeance and to solidify her new husband's reign. Her pitiless scorn and disdain when Lavinia pleads for her honor enables Haberle to take her role to almost cinematic heights; Tamora is a being of pure evil, a glutton of glory when seeing her enemies struck down.

Where Tamora is motivated by family and emotion, Aaron is a cold-blooded master of manipulation. Using those around him as little more than pieces on a chessboard to in order to consolidate his own power and make his enemies suffer, Aaron is unapologetic for the horrors he has orchestrated, completely amoral, even when offered the chance of repentance. Jones' Aaron is the serpent in the garden whose whispered ideas are the catalyst to the unspeakable evils that trigger an unstoppable bloodletting that engulfs everyone and everything in the play.

William Jackson Harper and Patrick Carroll effortlessly switch from comic ineptitude to callous predators as Tamora's sons Demetrius and Chiron, thinking they can get away with their crimes because of the power their mother wields. Howard projects the aura of a wise counselor as Marcus, a man who, like his brother, is quite ready to revenge any wrongs done against him or his kin. Campbell is a fine Lucius, the character who matures the most over the course of the story - a somewhat bloodthirsty youth at the beginning, he learns from his harsh experiences thus allowing him to temper his vengeful fury with wisdom. Fishel plays Saturninus as a strutting peacock who is more concerned at having his wishes carried out rather than knowing exactly how they are executed.

But it is Jennifer Ikeda as Lavinia who masterfully delivers the personification of the end result of pure evil on a rampage. At first fresh-faced and innocent, her brutalization at the hands of her attackers is horrifying, and Ikeda's portrayal of Lavinia's attempts to live in the aftermath of an unimaginable violation uncomfortable to watch.

Superb fight choreography by Thomas Schall makes the many violent scenes in Titus utterly believable. Brett J. Banks' scenic design, utilizing a stack of large plywood sheets that are used to simulate everything from coffins to tables, from gallows to indictments of crimes, are a versatile canvas on which the bloody scenes unfold. Mark Barton's lighting is fittingly stark, while the music and sound design by Brandon Wolcott is quite gripping, especially in the attack scene with Lavinia and in the final moments of the play.

Violent to the extreme, this production of Titus Andronicus allows the play's

Titus Andronicus

Featuring: Frank Dolce (a boy, Young Lucius, Mutius, Alarbus), Jacob Fishel (Saturninus), Sherman Howard (Marcus Andronicus), Rob Campbell (Lucius), Patrick Carroll (Quintus, Chiron), William Jackson Harper (Martius, Demetrius), Jennifer Ikeda (Lavinia), Daoud Heidami (Publius, Aemilius, Nurse, Messenger, a Goth), Stephanie Roth Haberle (Tamora), Ron Cephas Jones (Aaron)

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Sexton
Scenery Design: Brett J. Banakis
Costume Design: Cait O'Connor
Lighting Design: Mark Barton
Music and Sound Design: Brandon Wolcott
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Production Stage Manager: W. William Shiner
Stage Manager; Alaina Taylor

The Public Theater

425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or

Running Time: Two Hours, 55 Minutes

Closes: December 18, 2011

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