Titus Andronicus | Tin Ceiling Theatre

theat_titus.jpgThere is fun to be had listening to some of the poetry, trying to figure out whether the wily Titus is really mad or just faking it, and watching it all play out.







When I saw that Tin Ceiling Theatre was putting on Titus Andronicus with Robert Mitchell in the title role, I thought it might be a goof. But as soon as mad-eyed Aaron (Alan David) came out before the makeshift curtain to announce the goings-on, it was clear that the intention was (mostly) to play it straight. Oh, there are touches of typical Tin Ceiling mischievousness; such as Tamora (Amy Kelly) being got up like Eva Peron once she’s made Empress of Rome after the defeat of her attacking Goths by Titus’ army. One of the most subtle notes was during the intermission incidental music when I noticed the tune was "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." Anyway, not only was "Titus" not played for laughs, somehow director Robert Strasser and his cast of variously capable Shakespearean actors pulled off a decent show.

Titus Andronicus is a "revenge tragedy," as are a number of other Elizabethan-era dramas. All of Shakespeare’s tragedies carry an element of revenge in that it is the engine of inevitability when the bodies start to pile up. But, the carnage level is lower in Shakespeare’s more mature efforts. Here, he harks back to Seneca in structure and Aeschylus in his pie recipe. He also looks forward: Aaron is a Moor, and the incarnation of evil except in his love for his bastard child gotten upon Tamora. He prefigures Iago, though, despite his pigmentation. Titus himself shows up in Othello (his temper and his profession), Lear (his age and devotion to a daughter) and Henry VI (his weariness of it all). Titus is also a sort of Colin Powell: After becoming a war hero, he is named to replace the dead Emperor of Rome, but he declines in favor of the eldest son of that emperor, Saturninus (Doug Hettich). And like Powell must have done, he comes to regret that decision.

The convoluted plot involves Tamora craving revenge on Titus for the murder of her firstborn son to avenge the death of 24 of his sons in battle. (Presumably there was more than one Mrs. Andronicus, but he appears, not surprisingly, to be a widower now.) He dotes on his daughter, Lavinia (Tara Lawton) who is engaged to Bassianus (Adam Thenhaus), younger brother of Saturninus, who had also wanted to be emperor. Saturninus decides Tamora will be his wife, and she is only too happy to be restored to power. Her two remaining sons, Chiron (Evan Godt) and Demetrius (Michael Amoroso), kill Bassianus and rape and mutilate Lavinia to avenge their brother. Now the revenge ball is in Titus’ court. Lavinia’s tongue has been cut out so she can’t tell who attacked her, though she eventually figures out a way. Also, Lucius (Derek Simmons), now the last surviving Adronicus son, has been banished. Eventually, he gets in league with the Goths and returns. In the end, there is, of course, a whole pile of dead people; the only major survivors being Marcus Andronicus (John Johnson), Lucius who will be Emperor, and Aaron, destined to be buried alive and starved to death.

The leads are comfortable with Elizabethan English, even when it’s badly written, as it often is here. But there is fun to be had listening to some of the poetry, trying to figure out whether the wily Titus is really mad or just faking it, and watching it all play out. As usual at Tin Ceiling, the set is spare (those two boxes that have been on the stage seemingly forever get a real workout) with the above-mentioned curtains, a painted backdrop of a Roman residence, and that’s about it. The costumes are interesting: The characters are in modern dress, but there are subtleties in them that define character, such as bright yellow suspenders on one of Tamora’s dim sons, red gloves to mark Lavinia’s missing hands, sashes over some of the suits to denote nobility and demonstrate power, Tamora’s ratty furs and costume jewelry, a black shirt and pants to denote the blackness and evil of Aaron, and best of all, a chef’s hat on Titus in the last scene. Good job by Rhianon James. Lighting is a bit uneven at times; no sound designer is credited, but the musical choices are spot on. I did read the play (once!) but I don’t remember the script well enough to comment on Damien Samways’ editing, other than to say that whatever he cut and/or clarified had to have been an improvement.

Strasser notes in the program that Tin Ceiling has "always championed new plays by emerging playwrights." In light of that goal, Titus Andronicus, written when Shakespeare was in his 20s, is a fitting selection. After all, everybody was a beginner once upon a time, and this guy panned out. | Andrea Braun


Titus Andronicus is at Tin Ceiling through Dec. 21. For tickets, call 314-374-1511 or visit tinceiling@gmail.com. For information, the website is at http://www.tinceiling.org/.

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