Risky Business

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titus-andronicus-court.jpgTitus Andronicus is like the Reservoir Dogs of the Shakespearean canon- endless, unrelenting violence, bloodsport, and vengeance performed by characters who are really insanely ruthless, irrationally mean, or both.  Julie Taymor’s outrageous and elaborate 2004 movie Titus (complete with Jessica Lange as Goth Queen Tamora in a breastplate) reveled in the violence, blood, and sensationalism of the play.  Charles Newell’s startling, stunning new production at the Court Theatre, on the other hand, creates what I believe is a more powerful world than the movie.  Instead of focusing on the over-the-top violence that the play contains, Court’s Titus Andronicus focuses on the environmental and psychological factors that drive people into uncontrollable, unstoppable spirals of violent behavior, mostly physical, but also emotional.  It is a very different re-think of the play, and one that is likely to create lots of controversial, polarizing reactions among theatre-goers, not only with purists and Shakespearean experts, but also with just regular theatre-lovers.   I, for one, nearly got torn into bits in the equivalent of a verbal body slam match by some friends at Bar on Buena, where we had ensconced ourselves after the Sunday matinee performance, during a football game (!).  Yes, Julie Taymor would have approved of that Andronicus-like spectacle.

My dear friend and avid blog reader Jonathan (who like the Tribune’s Chris Jones detested the production) made a very clear point that the play he saw was not Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, but some play that had parts of Titus Andronicus being performed within it.  And he is correct for the most part.  Court’s Titus is fantastic, strongly conceptual meta-theatre- there is the play which frames Shakespeare’s material in which a group of well-bred and affluent young men, somewhere in the present day, in a strange initiation rite for an exclusive, Skulls and Bones type clique, perform a reading of Titus Andronicus with two women who were invited as guests by the leaders of the group (by the way, Hedy Weiss in her favorable review suggests an intriguing inference that this could be a junior executive management retreat instead of a prep school fraternity.  Interesting thought – since that would lead to totally new implications).   What starts off as awkward horsing around and game-playing by a group of alpha Males who believe in their intellectual and moral superiority and embrace their entitlements and privileges, gradually descends into the same madness and violence which are explicitly contained in the play they are performing.   They become the roles that they are playing.   But why?  In this production, the violence and cruelty is driven primarily by the way these guys think, by the way that they were conditioned to think- that their elite social, economic, and educational/intellectual status allow them carte blanche ability to do whatever they want, regardless of consequences.  In my opinion, it’s a brilliant premise which clarifies and reinforces the play’s themes – why do we resort to violence?  Why do violent, and violating, acts result in more violence?  Why is vengefulness attractive?  Aren’t violence and vengefulness products of selfishness and wanton disregard of others’ rights and wishes?  In order to present the play-within-the-play, Newell makes really risky and brazen artistic decisions -  the actors pretend to read from scripts, especially at the beginning of the play, they interject contemporary language throughout, they call each other by their real names at times, lines and speeches from Shakespeare’s original text are bravely eliminated.  It can be maddening to some, exhilarating to others.  I, for one, strongly feel that this is great out-of-the-box thinking, focusing on the Shakespearean themes, which are timeless, relevant, and still contemporaneously urgent, instead of the language and poetry of the text.  It’s a risky trade-off which I personally feel succeeds; my friends who wanted to wrestle me to the ground don’t share the same opinion.  I do feel, however, that Newell put the brakes on somewhat – if he is going to radically update the production, he might as well have added more new writing, more narrative, into the framing drama.  I think more explicit back-story about the clique, the leaders, and the initiates would have made the production easier to follow.  Right now, you would have to piece it from clues in the new text as well as the acting and the staging.  For example, when Phillip James Brannon reluctantly and bewilderedly agrees to perform the role of Aaron the Moor, the acting and staging give you hints to his outsider status in the clique, which makes his subsequent immersion in the villainous Aaron role all the more powerful. 

Titus Andronicus‘s cast is probably the sexiest, most volcanic cast of young male actors that I have seen in a Chicago theatre recently.  Timothy Edward Kane as Titus/Tim-clique head honcho is mesmerizing as a grave, with-it leader who goes to pieces after seeing the violence committed on a loved one.  Matthew Brumlow (who I admired so much in last year’s American Theater Company production of a stripped down Oklahoma), Erik Hellmann, Anish Jethlamani, Matt Schwader- actors I have been excited to see in other plays around the city, together with the rest of the ensemble, give committed, indelible performances (especially given the fact that seven of the actors change roles depending on the performance).  The women are also spectacular- I have already mentioned in a previous blog post that Hollis Resnik’s graceful musical theatre skills give Tamora, a ridiculously over-the-top monster villain as written, a lighter-hearted, less Mommie Dearest-like demeanor.  Elizabeth Ledo as Titus’s violated daughter Lavinia, gives an emotionally wrenching performance.  She’s fantastic, even just standing silently stage center.

One last thing I want to mention is the brilliance of the set design.  Designed by Leigh Breslau, who is not a theater stage designer, but rather a Partner at the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, the set is a marvel of mirrors, tiles, modernist furnishings, and an intimidating catwalk.  The design works at a literal level, evoking the affluent, exclusive contemporary setting, but also at the meta-level, creating a world of mirrors where people can only see their reflections, and thus behave and make decisions only based on their reflected selves.

I laud Court Theatre, Charles Newell, and the amazing cast for a Titus Andronicus that is fresh, re-invigorated, provocative, exciting Shakespeare for the 21st century audience.  It sure beats those static soliloquies that many theatre companies in the city seem to think is the only sacred, respectful way to do Shakespeare (yes, I am talking about that atrocious Cymbeline last spring).  Everyone knows the dude is kick-ass; he deserves kick-ass productions like this!

Titus Andronicus runs till February 10 at the Court Theatre,5535 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago.  Please go see it for a highly-rewarding night of Shakespeare.  Purists beware!

4 Responses to “Risky Business”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    There were many elements of The Court’s production of Titus that I feel were laudable. Leigh Breslau’s set design may have been at the top of this list for me. Before the play began I was excited by the mirrored set, the slightly institutional quality of the shade of green chosen for non-mirrored surfaces, and the overall slickness of the design. I would go so far as to say it was, well, sexy. My only negative comment on the set is there is a lighting unit hung at the front of the stage that combined with the rake of the house, cuts off the view of the actors on the catwalk. If the lights were hung about 3 feet higher it would solve that problem, but I digress…

    It is not the concept of the piece that I disagree with. It is the execution of that concept that I found to be very unsuccessful.

    Titus Andronicus, I would venture to say, is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known works. It is extremely dark and gory which perhaps offers an explanation of why it is not overly produced. So when a theater company steps forward to produce this work, I get very excited. What disappointed me with this production is that I felt the conceptual elements outshined, and took away from the very beautiful and powerful text of this play. The Bard has given powerful and unrelenting characters a wonderfully crafted arsenal of vocal weaponry that seems tossed into the ever present oven at the front of the stage. Why perform Shakespeare if you are going to dump out the text? Now there are some in the blogging world that says this makes me a “purist”. Maybe I am. But why perform Shakespeare’s work if you feel that it can be hacked and torn apart to serve whatever purpose you come up with?

    Tom Stoppard once wanted to take a look at Hamlet from another perspective. Did he produce a production of Hamlet wherein he chucked the very carefully structured text out the window and gave characters the freedom to change names, and add in bits of modern text as they saw fit? No! He wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He took the time to write a new work that gave his vision a framework that would best suit his purpose. While selecting bits of the Hamlet text to tie into his original work, his “behind the scene” look at a well know, often performed play took on new life without compromising the original text.

    If Charles Newell wanted to explore the themes of elite social, economic, and educational/intellectual status or intellectual and moral superiority and how it allows those who possess it to embrace their entitlements and privileges in what ultimately becomes a violent manner – he should have written his own play. He could have crafted a story in which the situation- these men and their secret society- took the forefront and used Titus, or their production of Titus, to thread his story line together. I think this is where the real flaw in the production lies. In using Titus as the back bone and not crafting a solid, additional story line, we are left unsatisfied with not only the story of what is happening with these young men and their club, but also with the lives of the characters in the original work. There are speeches in Titus that are brilliantly haunting. These were thrown out the window as actors giggled and ran around the stage during the most chilling exchanges- such as that of Tamora and Aaron being discovered in the wood by Bassianus and Lavinia. The exchange of power in this scene as we move from Aaron and Tamora being the guilty parties being turned over to Saturninus to Bassianus getting killed and Lavinia being hauled off to be pillaged and carved up was made a mockery of in this production. I don’t understand that. All the themes that Mr. Newell is being credited for highlighting with this terribly clever concept are already there in the original work. If anything this production lessoned the blow of the themes in Titus.

    Yes, it is important to bring new life to work. Shakespeare’s texts have been around for a long time. Productions of these plays have been produced time and time again because of their timeless themes and teachings. Much has been done to the work to try and keep it fresh- modern costuming, clever changes of location or time period- and all seem to stick to the original text. Design concept is a very valid arena in which to update the work. But if you feel the work is so outdated or over done that it can’t stand up on its own feet there is a very simple solution- don’t produce one of his plays! Write your own creepy play about secret societies gone awry. In fact, I believe there are several motion pictures out there that do that very thing!

    And speaking of film, say what you will about Taymor’s masterpiece. A breast plate is a costume choice, not a concept for a play. Titus with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lang is a balls to the wall production of a gory and violent piece of theater that stretches ones imagination and dramatic vision while keeping the text in tact. There is nothing in that work that feels stale or underexplored.

    I will agree with the blogger that the cast at The Court was fantastic. If they had been allowed to perform the play as written by a legend that has stood the test of time I think we would have been witness to some mind blowing performances. But when one has to break up their thought process and line delivery by pulling a fake script out of their back pocket to “find a line” it is the performance, and not only the audience, that are lost.

  2. kate Says:

    I saw the opening Sunday, also, and it took me about 18 hours to process it. I liked it a lot more the next morning than I did when the curtain went down, and I did like it at the end. There may not have been enough alteration to rename the play, but I think there was enough to perhaps footnote it as not solely Titus and perhaps bring a tad more clarity to tip the audience that what they are about to observe is Not Titus As Usual. That may be one of Newell’s few execution faults.

    I suggest that if there was any less Titus in it or if Newell had written his own piece entirely, it would work less well. The tension of never quite knowing how much of the acting was really fun, was this part acting or real, when were these alleged actors going to understand how far they were over the line, who was going to yell stop, watching the whole evening spiral out of control, that whole build up was perfectly executed. Did it work because the action was immediate while the words were 95% Shakespeare? I think yes.

    The issue that really popped for me personally, the next morning, were the two characters who appeared to get it, realized the pending disaster, the “adults” as Chris Jones labeled them, those two never yelled Stop. Who among us has been in the same shoes and couldn’t find our voice and summon our courage when we should have? How hard or easy is this to do? When will it happen again? Watching Newell’s Titus was like watching the rise of the Nazi party in one extreme, or an allegory on petty office politics in another. That’s just one view I walked away with.

    I need to see it again, it had that kind of impact.

  3. Jonathan Says:

    The more I read the comments from people I respect the more I find myself thinking- yes, that sounds like a great show! What a wonderful way to look at it! But I didn’t bring any of that away from what I actually saw on stage. Maybe I am a faulty observer because I wanted a true performance of Titus, and that kept me from looking deeper into the other ideas going on on stage. I am really glad so many people are having a positive reaction. I think all the ideas Kate spoke to were really wonderful, and have given me much more to think about. I think if this production had been billed as something other than Titus Andronicus, and there was more of an idea that what you were going to see was not a production of the play, but this special spin on it, maybe I would not have had such a adverse reaction to it. I am not changing my opinion, but appreciate the other strong ideas that are helping me consider it in another light. I almost feel like I need to go see it again. Almost.

  4. francis Says:

    Jonathan and Kate, thanks for your introspective and passionate comments (and additional thanks to Jonathan for using up my blog commentary length ration for the week!). I think if a theatrical production creates so many passionate pro-and-con arguments, so many different layers of meaning and shades of introspection, and as Timeout Chicago critic Kris Vire said to me, if it provokes so much discussion, then the play is probably a success. (Kris, by the way, gave Titus Andronicus a favorable review, unlike Chris Jones. Read it here: http://www.timeout.com/chicago/articles/theater/25784/titus-andronicus).

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