Saturday, January 24, 2015

Titus Andronicus

Last night, I saw the second preview of Titus Andronicus, which is being performed by New York Shakespeare Exchange at HERE Arts Center. The show is playing through February 8th, and it's definitely worth checking out.

New York Shakespeare Exchange is known for their highly conceptualized productions, and this one is no different. The entire play is set inside a carnival, reminiscent of American Horror Story: Freak Show. At the beginning of the play, the cast of carnies comes out and begins a fun game of tag, until one stabs another. This person--now "IT"--gets stabbed by someone else. The new IT is stabbed, with the stabber now the next to be stabbed, and so on and so on. The message is clear, and the cycle of violence mirrors the recurring acts of revenge in the play.

Shakespeare has a rustic yokel in Titus Andronicus named as "clown" (as he often does). In this production, however, the clown is--well--a clown, played comically by Kerry Kastin. The clown also plays a number of minor characters who get killed off in the play, including Mutius, Martius, and the Nurse. Whenever she appears as a new character, the audience braces for gore, just like when a new red shirt enters the deck of the Enterprise on Star Trek.

And oh yes, there will be blood. Sometimes the production lavishes stage blood in true Grand Guignol fashion, and indeed, stage hands have to mop up the stage at intermission. Other times, however, the violence is stylized. Throughout the first act, kernels of corn frequently pour into a metal tub to indicate acts of violence, a technique that is ominous without being stomach-churning.

The central episode in the play is the infamous severed-hand scene. After Titus (played by Brendan Averett) chops off his own hand in a bid to save his sons, a messenger arrives, bearing the heads of those two sons. This is of course after his daughter Lavinia (played by Kate Lydic) has entered, raped, her hand severed, and her tongue cut out. Faced with such overwhelming grief, Titus has no choice but to laugh.

After this turning point, the play's tone shifts as Titus sets about getting his revenge. The actors have no qualms about playing up the absurdity of the situation, especially during the bloody banquet at the end of the play.

As with his production of King John a few years ago, director Ross Williams does an excellent job making Shakespeare feel contemporary and relevant. If you're interested in going, go to the website of the New York Shakespeare Exchange for further information.