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A CurtainUp Review
Titus Andronicus


"Ha! Ha! Ha!"— Titus
"Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour. "— Marcus
"Why, I have not another tear to shed. &"mdash; Titus
Titus Andronicus
Jay O. Sanders
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The theater of shudders returns to New York with Michael Sextonís mounting of Titus Andronicus. In this Public Theater production, Sexton aims not at mythic grandeur but at shattering effects. And no matter what notions you may harbor about the Bardís early tragedy, this radical staging will remind you that Titus is the potent root of Shakespeareís later tragedies.

The play opens with a Boy (Frank Dolce) seated on a giant pile of plywood, silently reading Ovidís Metamorphoses. Itís a deft theatrical stroke. The tableau not only anchors the evening but it suggests the very meat of the play. Indeed, before you exit the theater, you will get a genuine taste of Ovidís ancient classics, with references to Tereus, Philomela, Procne, Dido and Aeneas, Priam, to mention a few.

The play is not for the faint-hearted. It includes mutilations, murders, rapes, adultery, cannibalism, madness, and thatís the short list. Itís difficult to put this waking nightmare in a nutshell, but suffice it to say that itís set in Rome, and that the main action opens with the war hero Titus being celebrated for his military victories over the Goths.

Though Romans hope to make him their new emperor, he declines the honor, and urges the Tribunes to elect Saturnius. In gratitude the new emperor picks Titusís daughter Lavinia to be his bride. But this nuptial arrangement is overturned when Saturniusís brother Bassanius claims that Lavinia is his own. This angers Titus, who tries to seize Lavinia, but ends up killing his son Mutius, who was blocking him from reaching Lavinia. Outraged, Saturninus defiantly marries the released prisoner Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Everything that follows is an unspeakable brew of horror, blood, and revenge.

The reason why the play works on a contemporary audience is that Sextonís production fuses the archaic with the contemporary. At first blush, Brett J. Banakisís plywood set looks very ordinary, but as the evening wears on, various panels are maneuvered, and inscribed with key textual words and visual motifs. The set itself thus become as intriguing as the pages of Ovidís Metamorphoses. And as one deciphers the various inscriptions, one is reminded of a deep truth at the core of this play: reading and writing are the keys to a recovered humanity here.

The one dubious stroke of the evening is the multiple-casting of actors. Thereís certainly nothing wrong with multiple-casting, but in this rarely-staged play, with savagery afoot from the get-go, confusion can all too easily set in. A case in point is the young actor Frank Dolce whoís being asked to play a Boy, Mutius, Young Lucius, and Alarbus. Daoud Heidami is another case of an actor assigned to play enough roles . to make oneís head spin.

The confusing casting is a laspe in an otherwise intelligent production and rewarding performances such as Jay O. Sanders in the title role. He displays an anthology of warring emotions and is terrific at portraying Titusís revenge-addled madness. Also commanding is Stephanie Roth Haberle as Tamora; Jennifer Ikeda, as the gentle Lavinia; and Jacob Fishel, as the proud Saturninus. No less impressive are Ron Cephas Jones as Aaron (a rough draft of Iago) as well as William Jackson Harper and Patrick Carroll, as Tamoraís sons Demetrius and Chiron.

The renowned critic Marjorie Garber astutely observes that Titus is more ďa Shakespearean stepchild than a legitimate heir.Ē And though contemporary critics are slowly acknowledging its dramatic merits, the play is still regarded as peculiar —, and for good reason.

Fortunately, Sexton has the guts to take on this bloodiest tragedy. And he does a bang-up job with it. Without aiming to defend the play, Sexton simply invites theatergoers to experience Shakespeare in the rough. He also reminds theatergoers that before he was a great playwright, he was an apprentice.

The opportunity to see this rarely done play at the this series' wonderfully affordable ticket prices ends this Sunday.

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Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Sexton
Cast: Rob Campbell (Lucius), Patrick Carroll (Chiron), Frank Dolce (a Boy/Mutius/Young Lucius/Alarbus), Jacob Fishel (Saturninus), William Jackson Harper (Martius/Demetrius), Daoud Heidami (Bassianus/Quintus/Publius/Aemilius/Nurse/Messenger/a Goth), Sherman Howard (Marcus Andronicus), Jennifer Ikeda (Lavinia), Ron Cephas Jones (Aaron), Stephanie Roth Haberle (Tamora) and Jay O. Sanders (Titus Andronicus).
Sets: Brett J. Banakis
Costumes: Cait OíConnor
Lighting: Mark Barton
Music and sound: Brandon Wolcott
Fight director: Thomas Schall
Stage manager: M. William Shiner
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place, East Village; (212) 967-7555, publictheater.org
Tickets: $15
From 11/29/11; opening 12/13/11; closing 12/18/11 Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on December 13, 2011
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