Shakespeare. Still relevant? And how. When a Supreme Court justice weighs in about Master Will and makes the front page of the Wall Street Journal with his thoughts (April 18/19, 2009), The Avon Bard is definitely still relevant. Reflect upon the eerily modern themes of his Titus Andronicus, currently in performance at Dallas’ Kitchen Dog Theater. Inhale its relevance. But please don’t take it too seriously.
If William Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, it first appeared between 1589 and 1592, a bit over four hundred years ago. Described by T. S. Eliot as the “worst play ever written”, it has confounded and puzzled critics, directors, producers, other playwrights and academics alike since its cloudy start. It’s just so darn relentlessly gruesome, even for violence-charged Elizabethan theatre. According to critic S. Clark Hulse “It (the play) has 14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3 depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity, and 1 of cannibalism—-an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines.” Barf bags could be handed out with programs. It wouldn’t seem ironic.
Where does a company go with such a Frankenstein of a play? We think we’re so far removed from the violence of tragic revenge with our sanitized Western culture, so why not set it in Iraq or Afghanistan, a modern staging? The insane invasion of Iraq resulted as a twisted sort of revenge justification for the 9-11 bombings of the World Trade Center; the conflict in Titus results from a private, murderous feud between the Roman general Titus and Tamora, Queen of the Goths. The Iraq invasion led to further atrocities, mass murder verging on genocide, Abu Ghraib, water boarding, rendition of many innocent people and detention at Guantanamo without defense, escalation of Al Qaeda adherents throughout the world and general destabilization in the Middle East. Similarly, Titus’ hasty violent actions and Tamora’s equally vengeful violent reactions create so much mayhem and destruction that very few of the play’s characters are left alive and/or whole by its conclusion. There’s one big difference. This play is funny. A modern staging would seem ill conceived, in poor taste.
Funny, you ask? That’s what makes it hard to stage. Kind of like Monty Python doing a slasher movie as a cartoon, Titus Andronicus is so overtly absurd with its non-ending gore and totally unreal situations it demands laughter. And yet it’s so overwhelmingly gruesome…. Clever folks at Kitchen Dog. Instead of giving the play a contemporary setting to match its modern adaptation by Lee Trull and Leah Spillman (which could have sent audience members retching to the bathroom or home to horrific CNN-like nightmares) they placed it in the long vanished Mayan metropolis of Tikal. This exotic setting heightens the fantastical aspect so the violence becomes just one wondrous element.
The audience enters the smaller studio space at Kitchen Dog, finding itself thrust deep into the dark, feral wilds of a S. American jungle, and sits all along one side of the space while buckets of stage blood spatter and assorted innards and severed hands spill across a multi-level thrust stage suggesting a Mayan temple. Meanwhile, original indigenous-themed accompaniment by international recording artist and SMU percussion professor Jamal Mohamed stirs up primal rhythms in a blood-curdling way no Elizabethan lute could ever aspire to. Evil lurks in abundance. At the play’s end, villain consort Aaron (Jamal Gibran Sterling) proclaims, “If one good Deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very Soul” as he is buried up to his neck alive, to die a slow, cruel death of thirst and starvation. The KDT jungle will hungrily welcome him home as one of its own.
Leading the stellar cast is company co-founder Joe Nemmers, who brings a gravity and surprising sensitivity to the title role, cause of so much destruction. At ease in Mayan loincloth and sporting a Mohawk-like wig that lends him an air of Mel Gibson in Braveheart, Nemmers masters the physical requirements of the role with naturalistic ferocity, while conveying Shakespeare’s soaring imagery with the soul-inspired clarity of a poet. It’s easy to sympathize with Nemmers’ Titus, hard as that may be to believe. Matching him slash for claw in ferocity and passion is company member Christine Vela as the villain goddess Tamora. Wild and conniving, lascivious, without conscience, she feigns sympathy with her subjects while plotting their deaths in a way that must have chilled the heart of ever-cognizant Queen Elizabeth I when she first saw the play produced. Vela enlivens her role as a “Wonder Woman of the Underworld” with reckless abandon, believable as a rabid wolverine that devours her own young. The supporting cast members, made up of regional professionals and SMU students, function as foils or objects for the two leads to battle over and destroy. Rukhmani Desai, as ill-fated Lavinia, comes closest to a real-life portrayal in her depiction of Titus’ daughter, a young woman raped and grotesquely brutalized. Rhonda Boutte as Titus’ relative Marcius gives moral compass and rational perspective to the horrors unfolding and pulls the audience back from blood-induced, numb stupor at the end with dignified, measured delivery. The only odd performance came from John Flores as Tamora’s King Saturninus; his vacillation between seriousness and buffoonery seemed disjointed, accentuated by a strange wig making him look like Moe of the Three Stooges, which fell off during his death scene. Lose the wig?
Was Shakespeare “ exploring the nature of a powerful empire…to see the human side of violence” as Titus director Christopher Carlos suggests? Was he portraying in code the resultant destruction of the soul of England through Catholic persecution at the hands of Elizabeth I’s unscrupulous henchman during the Reformation as British Shakespeare scholar Claire Asquith poses? Was he simply imitating the violent works of Roman playwright Seneca, contemporary to Shakespeare’s original setting of Titus? See Kitchen Dog Theatre’s production of Titus Andronicus for a bloody good time, at any rate.
TITUS ANDRONICUS, a Kitchen Dog Theater and Meadows School of the Arts production runs through Saturday, May 16 in the Black Box Theater at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC) located at 3120 McKinney Avenue in Uptown.
For tickets: call the Kitchen Dog Theater box office at 214-953-1055; buy online at http://www.kitchendogtheater.org