Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Margin Notes: Titus

Antonio Disla, Whitney Egbert, Fahim Hamid, Denny
Desmarais, and Andrew Barrett. Photo by
Lauren Eliot Photography.

Seen on: Saturday, 6/17/17.
My grade: A-

Plot and Background
The program alerts the audience that this production, performed by eight actors sharing all the roles, follows its source material, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, loosely. It is instead a one-hour exploration and examination of humanity, specifically the plight of refugees and the endless cycle of vengeance to which humanity is too often prone. Titus, recently victorious against the Goths in battle, ignites the cycle by executing Tamora's oldest son. Blood will have blood, as Billy Shakes said, and by the end of the play all sons have been murdered, and few people are left standing. The Shakespeare Forum presents Titus after an extended period of exploration dating back to last autumn, and as a continuation of the process they began with its Henry V of 2015, to examine why and how they tell stories.

Disclosure, and 
What I Knew Beforehand
I have been attending The Shakespeare Forum's open workshops since 2009, recently served on its Advisory Board, and I've blogged about - and reviewed - Forum and some of its past productions. As for Titus, this was actually my second hour-long production of it I've seen, and I've seen the Julie Taymor film, though beyond that I wasn't overly familiar with the particularities of the text.


The performance begins with a pre-show (one normally performed outside, but due to the rain, was conducted indoors at my performance) of a chorus of women singing "Pie Jesu" over six shrouded corpses. This sets a contemplative, elegiac mood for the audience - we're not coming in at the start of a bloodbath, but after there has already been substantial life lost. So when Tamora pleads with Titus not to kill her son, too, we feel the weight of that plea. That weight is carried equally by the cast, who rotate in and out of all the roles, sometimes mid-line - so all are murderers bent on revenge, all are victims, wronged and mutilated. The violence and cruelty escalate, from cold execution to torture and mutilation, from rape and trickery to cannibalism and slaughter. As the dominoes fall faster, the play suddenly spirals and once again Tamora begs Titus for clemency - and we hold. Can the cycle be broken? Not easily, says this production. Not easily, but it is possible, if we can but remind ourselves what is important about our time here on earth. It's not the message I expected, frankly, especially in our current climate, where each military or diplomatic misstep seems to presage the next world war. But it is a message very much in keeping with what has been a primary tenet of The Shakespeare Forum since its inception: "Love is the strongest choice." Love, not despair. Not an inevitable and inescapable path to destruction. We can break the cycle.

Not everything in this experimentation works. The sharing of roles across the eight actors is unevenly conveyed - sometimes it's clear when a character has shifted performers, but sometimes it's not clear until a minute or so into a scene, when names are spoken, or when my imperfect memory of the story informs me who this must be. Perhaps that's part of the intention, that it doesn't matter who's speaking the lines, that nearly every character is bent on vengeance, and so differentiation is less of a priority - the motif of scheming savagery is more important than clarity of narrative. But I can't help but seek a story to follow, and some of this confusion took away from my total immersion in the moment.

However, there is one very striking scene where the sharing among the cast takes on a hypnotic power: all eight actors share Titus's soliloquy where he crafts his final revenge upon Tamora, and they are not in accord. In a Pirandellian nod, the group's unity shatters for the first time in the performance, as seven of them must convince the eighth to get past his despair and his exhaustion, to screw his courage to the sticking place, commit to their plan, and return to the script. This, then, is Titus's second chance to say "no more," and his second failure to do so.

When Titus misses his third chance, inciting a hyperspeed distillation of the slaughter of the past hour, there is, finally, a palpable release when - on Tamora's third plea for mercy - the players choose, at last, love. Singing first singly, then together, they reaffirm love as the most important legacy - both hearkening back to the elegy which began the show, and looking forward to what we will leave behind.