At first I was puzzled by the audience reaction to Haven Theatre’s opening night performance of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s goriest play (and possibly his worst). Over and over, there was uproarious laughter and enthusiastic applause. It was a youngish audience and I realized they reacted as if they were watching a live horror movie. Which they were.
Director Ian Damont Martin doesn’t have to do anything radical to make Titus a bloody mess. It’s Shakespeare’s highest body count play (14) and also includes beheadings, various tongue and hand chopchops—and cannibalism. Martin adds a racial element by casting Black actors as the Romans, the mortal enemies of the Goths.
The play begins with a vibrantly choreographed ballet of war with the opposing sides dancing in a powerful percussive style with blade battles between opposing warriors. The dance precedes the homecoming of Titus (Colin Jones) and his warriors from their defeat of the Goths. The Goth prisoners include the queen Tamora (Michaela Petro), her lover Aaron the Moor (Andrew Perez), and her sons, one of whom must die immediately to avenge the deaths of Titus’ 20+ sons. And despite her pleas for his life, Alarbus (Shane Richlen) is dragged off to his death, one of the few to happen offstage.
General Titus declines the throne left vacant after the emperor’s death and a competition ensues between Saturninus (Christopher Wayland) and Bassianus (Lakecia Harris), resulting in Saturninus being crowned emperor. Saturninus takes Tamora as his queen, although he prefers Titus’ daughter, the lovely Lavinia (Tarina Bradshaw), who is to marry Bassianus. Tamora instructs her sons Demetrius (Trevor Bates) and Chiron (Morgan Lavenstein) to kidnap Lavinia, rape and torture her. They do and the torture includes cutting out her tongue and chopping off her hands.
Tamora gives birth to a biracial baby, Aaron’s child. Aaron kills the nurse to keep the child a secret and takes the baby away to save it from Saturninus. (When I saw the baby cradled in Aaron’s arms, whimpering to be fed, I thought surely that baby is not going to survive this slaughterhouse.)
There’s far more hate and violence, but no need for any more plot description. Most of the chops, slices and stabbings take place on stage and there’s a great deal of blood—and burials in an on-stage crypt.
The play is vividly directed by Martin and choreographed by Leon Evans, the movement designer. Jones is powerful and dignified as Titus and so is Gregory D. Hicks as his son Lucius, who becomes emperor at the end. Bradshaw maintains her grace as the tortured Lavinia. Petro as Tamora is fierce and an audience favorite. (Petro is certified in self-defense and rape prevention and makes use of those skills here.) I liked Martin’s casting choices. Bassianus is played by a woman and so are Tamora’s son Chiron and Titus’ brother/sister, Marcus (Gabrielle Lott-Rogers)—she’s referred to here as Aunt Marcus instead of Uncle Marcus as in the original. The Clown (Andre McGraw) plays a key role late in the play.
The flexible set design—a multilevel expanse of light-toned wood—is created by Sydney Lynne Thomas with lighting by Adrienne Miikelle and sound design by Sarah D. Espinoza. Costumes are by Lily Walls. R&D Choreography is the violence designer.
Interesting facts about Titus Andronicus
Shakespeare’s other Roman plays (Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra) are based on historical figures but Titus is totally fiction.
The punk rock band Titus Andronicus, formed in 2005 in New Jersey, acknowledges its debt to the playwright in its band name and lyrics to “Titus Andronicus Forever,” in which the line, ”The enemy is everywhere” is repeated over and over.
The 2019 Broadway play, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus by Taylor Mac featured Nathan Lane as Gary, a trainee working with the maid to clean up the bodies after the bloody finale. The character Gary is apparently patterned after the Clown in the original Titus. New York Times reviewer Jesse Green definitely didn’t hate the play, saying it was “fabulous and bedraggled: a defiant and beautiful mess.” I deeply regret missing this play.
Scholar Harold Bloom (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human) says Shakespeare was mocking other playwrights and that the play was “wildly popular” among audiences at the time. Bloom calls Titus “an explosion of rancid irony carried well past the limits of parody. Nothing else by Shakespeare is so sublimely lunatic.”
Could the cut-em-up-and-turn-em-into pie theme of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street be attributed to the influence of Shakespeare’s culinary treats? Similar treats are served in a 1973 film, Theater of Blood.
My three-star rating is for the quality of the performance and the inventiveness of the director and cast. Obviously, if you are squeamish about scenes of violence and rampant bloodshed, this is not the play for you. For you, this play gets one star (not recommended).
Titus Andronicus by Haven Theatre continues at the Den Theatre mainstage through March 5. Tickets are $35 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is three hours including one intermission.