nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
December 10, 2009
Titus Andronicus has always been one of my favorites in Shakespeare's canon. It's full of all the good stuff that makes a meal of a play. Revenge, murder, loss, heartbreak, tragedy, and hope all make for a very meaty show. It is great for the actors and, if done well, something very special and memorable for the audience. It is also one of the most difficult plays to stage due to its graphic nature and extreme emotional subject matter. Known as Shakespeare's "gore" play, it isn't produced often, so when it is, I try to see it. I am always looking for a great production of Titus and I was very excited to attend The Queens Players' production at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City.
The story centers on the continuing war between the Romans and the Goths. Military leader Titus Andronicus has taken prisoner the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, and her three sons, Demetrius, Chiron, and Alarbus. He shows no mercy to Alarbus and has him executed, igniting the fury of a mother's scorn in Tamora. Little does he know that the Roman Emperor, Saturninus, would free the Goths, make Tamora his empress, and turn his back on his countryman. Needless to say, the stage is set for tragedy.
The Romans are clothed in pure white while the Goths are...well...gothic looking, clad in pure black, hooligan-style complete with black lipstick. It is very clear who we are intended to root for. No costume designer is credited, but whoever came up with the concept did an excellent job. The actors move around the stage like chess pieces. I was especially impressed to see little swatches of black creeping into Saturninus's white suit as he was gradually drawn over into the dark side or Tamora's revenge plan.
The set is a white platform with black swirls framing the wall and floor. On the back wall are two beautiful eyes that look like a sketch one could have taken right of the back of an angsty high schooler's notebook. These eyes cry streams of blood whenever someone is killed. Scenic designer R. Allen Babcock cleverly conceived the set, using only long, rectangular, black rehearsal blocks. Each scene is specifically created with quick and efficient scene changes done by the actors. Even scarce rearranging creates a variety of different locals using mostly the audience's imagination.
The drama itself, however, is lacking. I believe that the bulk of the responsibility lies in director Rich Ferraioli's concept. In his director's notes he says, "We toe the line between reality and absurdity in a way that resonates today through its depiction of difficult decisions and heartache." This statement in itself is a perfect example of the production's downfall. When dealing with such raw and over-the-top situations, as every one of the characters in Titus does, it is a misstep to plant the theme of the show in a wishy-washy purgatory of a concept. It is true that this play can be done as a farce. The characters are so dramatic and extreme that it can absolutely become comical and work very well if it goes all the way. It is also true that it can be done as a tragic drama, forcing actors to go to the very limits of their craft, pushing raw emotion and animalistic instincts into an almost Grecian genre. Any choice is correct as long as it is done 100% by the entire ensemble. Ferraioli's production has left his performers in a sort of no-man's-land where nothing sells because no one on stage knows which way to go. Ferraioli has even added a short ballet to an already lengthy cutting to depict how forlorn is the freshly raped and mauled Lavinia, played with syrupy sweetness and little conviction by Meg Mark, to further confuse the feel of the show. What could have been tragic becomes comical.
This is not to say that there are no decent performances in this show. It is clearly a very hard-working cast. Thom Brown III as Titus is perfectly placed in the title role. Although Brown is young, he plays the patriarch with staggering authenticity. His smooth, deep vocals and sad, pleading blue eyes are just what the role calls for. He has strength and drive and it is clearly his show. He is nearly matched by Elspeth Turner's Tamora, who does her best to manipulate but never went quite far enough to make me believe that revenge was her truest need. Timothy Olin as the diabolical Moor, Aaron, warmed up over the course of the play and delivered a stirring final monologue, but he never quite enjoyed his pure evil as much as he could have.
Ultimately it comes down to not going far enough and the show's lack of identity. Many opportunities are missed throughout the show because no real people are created from the characters. The relationships lack specificity because the performers, without exception, are trapped in the words of the piece and don't play their character's intention to the fullest. The play is written with quick and drastic changes of heart in the characters. The key to success is to motivate those changes and make them human. The Queens Players' production misses the mark this time, but here's hoping they find themselves on target for the next one.