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A CurtainUp Review
This Titus departs from traditional renderings. Ross has grafted on a Prologue that evokes a carnival atmosphere. Upstage center one sees weathered-looking props and a huge arcade-style bulls-eye; downstage left there's a "feed chute" that releases faux corn into a large bin when a cord is pulled.
As the lights go up, a Clown enters and traverses the stage, playing out a mime that ends up with her sitting at a dressing table at downstage right. The rest of the ensemble parade into the performing space, each having a chance to rendezvous with the Clown.
Just as everybody is getting into the Mardi Gras spirit, a performer draws a knife and brutally stabs his stage-mate. The Clown, as if on cue, pulls the release cord to the chute, and a rush of corn floods into the large bin, signaling the murder.
This first stabbing somehow seems to infect the ensemble with a murderous mentality. Performers keep drawing concealed blades out of their clothing and plunge them into each other. To punctuate each fresh stabbing, one hears the chilling sound of corn rushing down the chute. Within moments, the entire ensemble are corpses strewn upon the stage.
Remarkably, the blood in this production only begins with the notorious stage direction of Act 3. Scene 1: "Enter a Messenger with two heads and a hand."
There's no doubt that Ross has found an inventive way to preface Shakespeare's 1593 revenge tragedy that does pack a punch with its mime. But he fails to sustain his carnival conceit effectively in the larger play. He does, however, retain the Clown (who will oddly morph into several characters from the Goth and Roman camps), the circus backdrop, and bulls-eye prop.
Beyond the expanded role of the Clown, the premise seems gimmicky and doesn't fully integrate into the play's dramatic texture or its rich mythic layers (Ovid's Metamorphoses is used metaphorically and concretely). In fact, all the events that echo with Grand Guignol hardly get colored with Ross' conceit.
In all fairness, great stage performances of Titus are rare as hen's teeth. Though the Elizabethans immediately took to all its raw gore, it later became undervalued (and often ridiculed) by many serious critics after Shakespeare's death. Peter Brook's 1955 landmark production (with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh) at Stratford once again boosted the reputation of this rough tragedy, however. In 1999 Julie Taymor adapted the play to the screen (1999) and garnered raves from the critics and public alike. But beyond Brook and Taymor's striking interpretations, most Tituses are hit-and-miss ventures.
While this current presentation lacks coherence, a few principals in the cast are aces. Brendan Averett, turns in a robust performance as the tragic noble hero. Another fine performance is delivered by Gretchen Egolf as Tamora. She projects her Gothic Queen's ruthlessness through her stern physicality and has a powerful vocal attack. Warren Jackson, in the crucial role of Aaron, also manages to deliver the Shakespearean goods with plenty of bite. The rest of the ensemble, if not as memorable, are at least serviceable in their respective parts.
As far as the production values, Jason Lajka's set, Cassie Dorland's props, and Elivia Bovenzi's costumes look like thrift-store specials. So don't expect to see a fancy Roman palace, picturesque woods, or elegant decor. This presentation, cap-a-pied, has a decided Coney Island look to it.
In spite of this production's shortcoming, this company has been earning a solid reputation for their adventurous Shakespearean projects. Their current programs include ShakesBEER, a New York City pub crawl and The Sonnet Project. And this Titus does present an interesting steely edged concept even as its scenes spiral into the madness of double-revenge and more.