by Collin McConnell · February 1, 2015
Kerry Kastin, Vince Gatton, Gretchen Egolf | Kalle Westerling
There's a lot going on in New York Shakespeare Exchange's Titus Andronicus. And while there are some gorgeous moments and excellent performances, there is perhaps a little too much going on...
Let's start with the company. The New York Shakespeare Exchange are rather smart and incredibly ambitious (see The Sonnet Project), and make impressive use of their resident dramaturge, Shane Breaux. I have immense respect for a company that really builds a show around the work of a dramaturge, and Mr. Breaux makes much sense of the troubling ties our current world has with the murderous one of Shakespeare's Titus:
In addition to the clear similarities in both our cultures' gleeful combination of violence and entertainment... we also discovered beautiful poetry coexisting with, even describing, that brutality in Shakespeare's language. ...we found serious questions regarding the cost of survival, the relationships between war and society, as well as parents and their children, and the dangers of assuming the barbarousness of foreign cultures.
And so I entered this production with that in mind... along with this tagline:
"NOT YOUR MAMA'S TITUS."
Except, well, it kind of is.
For those who don't know, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is about a celebrated Roman General (Titus) who returns to Rome from a successful campaign against the Goths, only to find his empire in need of a new Emperor. The people elect Titus, but he refuses and selects the most logical (though obviously foolish choice) Saturninus. Saturninus is really pretty awful at ruling, marries the Queen of Goths, thus releasing all the prisoner Goths, and then dirty, awful bloodshed ensues in the form of rape, dismemberment, and cannibalism, among your standard stabbing and beheading (spoiler: pretty much everyone dies).
Director and Adaptor Ross Williams has made this macabre circus a literal one, thanks to Jason Lajka's wonderfully rough scenic design and Jack Cummins' appropriately ludicrous sound design. And then there's Kerry Kastin's performance as the clown. An interesting way in, as the one reasonably recognizable resident of this circus tent, her "clown" steps in as a much more representational role, helping bring the circus to (or maybe drag the circus out of) Titus.
But the correlation stops there - the association and silly jabs should be enough. And maybe it is, but it wasn't the epically reinvented Titus I was expecting. Instead, from here there is an odd mix of representational movement, stylized design elements, heightened moments of tension, and just good old fashion Shakespeare. Some of this is very elegant (such as the reveal of Lavinia after her encounter with Chiron and Demetrius), but much of it left me working to find its relationship with the story (the barnyard feed chute, for instance) -- I could feel all the subtle hints at all their relevance, but I was having a hard time keeping up and making sense of it all.
I think it was making me think too much.
I never thought I would say that about a piece of theater. And maybe it's not that I had to think too much, but that there was too much to think about. Either way, here's why I think it's maybe important to note: for all the smart, nuanced moves the production makes, it skips some of the bigger pieces of the picture that help it make sense. For example: while having an incredibly stylized shift in how the violence occurs is intriguing and maybe an excellent way to draw attention to how violence becomes real for someone, the moment in which the shift occurs feels almost arbitrary. Or that the shift also represents a dramatic change of the rules, and yet the new rules that appear to be set up in this moment aren't adhered to.
As to the good old fashion Shakespeare, though, Brendan Averett as the title character has it down. There is a sick sort of joy to be gleaned from watching his incredibly grounded Titus struggle against being unhinged by the absurdity of his world, being pushed to find a frightening logic for vicious final acts. Ethan Itzkow and Nathaniel P. Claridad as Chiron and Demetrius deserve great praise for bringing a fierce energy that seems so natural in the world Williams has built here, and Vince Gatton's feebly ignorant Saturninus is oddly charming.
I love Shakespeare, and I take great joy in all the playful and strange ways in which we find to present it now. I believe digging through and playing with Shakespeare is an incredible necessity, that we must continue to thrill at finding something new in what is only growing older and older. And so I applaud the New York Shakespeare Exchange and this company for digging and playing. It's just that maybe ambition got the better of them this time around, stuffing the circus with too many tricks to keep track of.