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Presented by: Washington Ensemble Theatre

Any production of Shakespeare's “Titus Andronicus” starts out with extra difficulty points. Built on the Senecan model of Roman revenge tragedy, the play is so gruesomely violent that it always edges on the ridiculous, proceeds at the risk of provoking laughs from its bloody intensity. It precludes deep involvement with the characters because they are so quick to act, and because the pursuit of justice always leads to even greater brutality and inhumanity. Finally, the frustration of revenge tragedy is that revenge itself never leads to catharsis, to the profound insight that gives classical tragedy its grandeur. Elizabethan audiences loved this stuff because it was filled with cheap thrills, action-adventure that required little from them and returned fast, superficial excitement. All that action was theatrical, and the stage made it immediate and urgent, visceral in just the right way for all that blood and pain to appear meaningful. 

With this inventive and committed production of “Titus” directed by Katjana Vadeboncoeur, the play is given a great deal of visual impact and a satisfying relevance to contemporary events. The cast is fully engaged, at times even too demonstrative, but ultimately cannot overcome the inherent weaknesses of the play itself. A drill-sergeant has impact but not insight, impresses but does not move us. The barking and shouting of lines becomes tiring and off-putting. The performances are uneven and some of the central roles simply inadequate. 

The theatrical imagination of red beads rolling down the stage to represent blood, or chains being pulled from a container to represent a disemboweling, or red petals falling gently to symbolize a shower of blood all, unfortunately, draw attention to their very artifice, rather than accenting the essential gore and horror.  

Far more effective was the simple white cloth over the face of a tortured prisoner, making him into that anonymous captive who travels history from ancient Rome to Abu Ghraib. When a black hood is drawn over a prisoner's head, we get the relevance to our own reprehensible pursuit of retribution toward Al Quida, but when the raped and mutilated daughter, Lavinia, has her amputated hands represented by putting on red rubber gloves, the only response is, “oh, stagey.”  

Ultimately, Vadeboncoeur is unable to find the central theme of the play, the reason why our interest should be drawn to these awful people and their even more awful deeds. Equally a problem is who the play is really about; is it the returned General Titus who never really understands the rules of engagement in the vicious battleground of civilization, or Tamora, the captured Queen of the Goths whose devious plotting leads to a reversal she literally chokes on, or is it Saturninus, son of Titus who becomes Emperor only to discover his inadequacy has elevated him to ruin? Finally, what should we leave the theater feeling; that blood and hate leads only to greater blood and hate, that Rome was a place where evil actions led by evil motives were the route to power, or that we, like Romans and Elizabethans, are content with plays that substitute action for consequence, the sensational for the substantive? I'm not sure, and that's the problem with this production. 

Nathan Sorseth gave a commendable performance as Titus, convincingly delivering the sense of command that made him a battlefield hero and the ineptitude as a father that leads to his entire family's ruin. The outstanding performance was given by Montana von Fliss as Queen Tamora. Her complexity of character melded with an enormous sensuality gave the connection between sexuality and violence some real heat. She also had the most affecting relationship with her children, and that made their loss sufficiently painful to motivate all her scheming. As the brutalized daughter, Lavinia, Mikano Fukaya simply didn't have the weight, the dramatic substance to carry the role. While we could sympathize with her terrible mistreatment, it never really achieved the level of outrage and obscenity it needed. As Saturninus, Adam Standley gave a nicely comic turn to his role as a kind of pretender to the throne, but he was also too lightweight to make it matter that the man was broken and not just overpowered. 

The production runs two hours without intermission, and that's rather a demand from the audience, but this is also a play that can't really afford to break and give us time to add up what it all amounts to. The scenic design (Andrea Bryn Bush) was quite wonderful, a cold metal platform with cubicles backed by split curtains through which the characters can appear and disappear. Brendan Patrick Hogan also provided a sound design that was effectively dehumanizing and harsh, although some contemporary songs really didn't fit.  

This production was hugely ambitious and the fact that it doesn't really succeed may have less to do with the efforts of the artists than with the challenges of the play. “Titus” is a curiously compelling piece of Elizabethan theatre, probably because our contemporary politics has more in common with Rome than with 17th Century London. “Titus Andronicus,” which was largely dismissed by earlier critics, seems quite more urgent to our own day. If only this production had more clearly shown us why. 

PICTURED ABOVE: Jonathan Hoonhout, Mikano Fukaya, Nathan Sorseth and Montana von Fliss
Victoria Lahti.

Written by:
Jerry Kraft

Added: May 18th 2009

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