Friday, October 25, 2013

Graveyard Titus: Lite & Dark

Titus Andronicus

By William Shakespeare

 By William Shakespeare
As performed by the Hudson Shakespeare Company

 October 18, 2013 The Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cove Cemetery

I must admit, I prefer a darker Titus. The Hudson Shakespeare Company’s  rendition, directed by Jon Ciccarelli, was more horror comedy, like those Scream movies, and lacked a seriousness I associate with this play. I like having my preconceptions challenged , as the action unfolded, I became caught up in the over-the-top, high-energy performance. A concluding gesture invoked the dark tragedy that eluded some of the actors, thus reedeming  this Titus.

Titus is pulpy, the violence seemingly over the top. The black comedy choice is a reasonable one, and at times the violence depicted by the Hudson Shakespeare Company reminded me of A Clockwork Orange. We laugh at the cruelty in spite of ourselves because we know we all share the potential for cruelty, given the right set of circumstances. Slapstick is violent and This Titus – performed in the Harsimus Cove Cemetery, although other performances are scheduled throughout the region, see website – was much informed by a slapstick ethos.  

Titus is dark and violent – Harold Bloom, who hates the play – I  LOVE Titus Andronicus –  thinks the violence is meant as farce – but it is Shakespeare most unalloyed  nightmare; it’s like a Jim Thompson novel and there’s no weird Shakespeare conceits like ghosts and witches. Titus is my favorite problem play!

Apparently, there’s a revival of Titus going on, there’s a recent film that was well received and scholars praising it, which Bloom acknowledges. For a long time, Titus was dismissed by scholars – such as my under-grad Shakespeare professor. Maybe Titus has found his moment.

 I think Bloom has no appreciation of noir – he doesn’t put any noir novels in his canon, he’s lacks enthusiasm for Poe although Cormac McCarthy he likes.

The violence in Titus is in your face – a woman is raped and maimed on stage, cannibalism occurs. Murders abound.

Interpreting Titus Andronicus as blood-drenched farce is not without precedent. The stage was in the Harsimus Cove  cemetery, which was freaky and discomforting but added to the fun. Maybe dwelling into the horror that is Titus would have been too intense in a setting where the sense of our own mortality is such an undeniable and constant reminder.

October, a literal chill in the air. Eeriness permeated.

The Hudson players indulge their fight scenes and a rather elaborate staging opened the play, which served to introduce the actors and show the core conflict of the Adronici and the Goths.

Titus Andronicus takes place in ancient Rome. I think in some ways Shakespeare is criticizing the violent and absolute system of honor in the ancient world, which was bloodthirsty and considered life cheap.  Titus is a gory enterprise, wallows in this extreme violence – Harold Bloom compared enjoying the play to sadomasochism and the Bardalator in chief  may have a point, but who doesn’t like it rough once in a while?

Titus is outrageously gory – decapitations, murders, rape, maiming, cannibalism – and do we go into this Heart of Darkness or do we keep it at distance through comedy, and the Hudson players chose the latter, with admittedly good effect. Chuckling in the graveyard – this night both figurative and literal in meaning – we do this to evade the ultimate facts of life – fragile and temporary and the horrors that are real far exceed what we can imagine. Maybe that’s the essence of the gallows humor and underlying subtext  which the Hudson Players, aided by the cemetery stage, explored.

 The Hudson players wore contemporary dress – and Aaron – played by Michael Hagins, who performed Shakespeare other, more famous moor last summer – used a smart phone as a prop, implying a kind of corporate evil. Aaron is Shakespeare’s most pure villain, his dies with the regret that he didn’t do more evil. Hagins chose to portray him as psychotic, and at the end when he’s executed, he is leering and has a joker laugh, foaming at the mouth as he welcomes death.

Aaron embodies evil, he believes in evil for evil’s sake. Tamora is devoted to Aaron, thus follows his recommendation that her sons rape Lavina, justified as a revenge for Titus murdering her eldest sons (by hacking off his limbs than burning him alive).

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Titus is Shakespeare at his pulpy best, the play being his most plot-driven. In lieu of fully excavating the dark depths of the characters, the players emphasized the fantastical story, which made some fun and excitement.

To facilitate matters, the troupe opened up in a stage fight and that served to introduce the core conflict of the play. Titus Andronicus (Joseph Hoover)  and his family fight, in loyal service to Emperor of Rome, fight and defeat the Goths. So after the stage fighting, the Goths, led by the queen of the Goths, Tamora (Noelle Fair) are captured, and Titus orders the death of her eldest son. Titus lost 21 of his 24 sons in the battle with the Goths.

Marcus (Tom Cox), brother of Titus, suggests Titus stand for emperor, but he backs Saturninus (Chris Kent) for the office. The new empower wants Titus’s daughter, Lavina (Lisa LaGrande) as his wife, but she is betrothed to Bassianus (Ian Kiric) and Titus sons help her escape.

Bassianus and the brothers insist that the empower is not above the laws of Rome and thus cannot force Lavina to be his wife. Titus is devoted to the Emperor and considers the office above all law. What was Titus the general for if not in support of the absolute power of the monarchy? An enraged Titus executer  his own son, Mutius (Linda Elizabeth) because he abetted the escape of Lavina, thus going against the emperor.

 Tamora is a prototypical femme fatale, a conniving seductress who becomes the wife of the emperor. But, she loves the moor and will give birth to his son. Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius  are persuaded by Aaron to kill Bassianus and rape Lavina. In what was some of the best acting of the evening, Lavina pleads with Tamora more for her maidenhood than for her life, spare her from her son’s “worse than killing lust.”

The appeal to feminine solidarity – how could a queen, a woman of power knowing how difficult it is for a woman to gain power –  was devastatingly tangible. How could she treat a sister this way, encourage and enable rape? The overall direction may have underscored the black comedy inherent in Titus, but there were a handful of crucially placed darker truths that while I may wish there were more of them, they were compelling when they did appear and serve to ground the performance to the dark truths of Titus.  The ravishing – and maiming – the sons cut off her hands and cut out her tongue to prevent Lavina from revealing their identities.  These acts were perpetrated behind a curtain, but the actress blood curdling shrieks echoed throughout the cemetery.

LaGrande had some incredible moments, imploring Tamora, appealing to an innate feminism and there was a vital pause as Fair slowly transmigrates her soul completely over to the dark side, but the pause – and the hesitation it encapsulated – enhanced the ambiguity in the character – before her embrace of evil, an evil that is identical in outcome  as Titus’s adherence to codes of honor prevalent in antiquity that Shakespeare is both depicting and criticizing.  The hesitation enriched Tamora.

 Tamora’s ambiguity?

Is the femme fatale innately bad to the bone or she bad to the bone because of the suppression of women in antiquity and in Elizabethan society?

If you were properly dressed (I wore a scarf), the October chill was actually refreshing and made me wish there were more Fall evening events around town. The graveyard was also a more preferable setting than Van Vorst Park, where I usually take in these Hudson County Players; further away from the street, there’s hardly any traffic noise, although the occasional PATH train issued a faraway clatter.

Marcus discovers Lavina, now in tattered apparel, sleeves pulled over her hands to simulate the maiming, who is cowering with trauma among the tombstones, a clever if necessary use of the cemetery setting. It’s a challenging role, especially in a drama so verbal as Shakespeare, to basically act by whimpers and gestures. She embodied the pathos, used it as grotesque comedy when appropriate. The rest of the Andronici try to figure out who did this to her and she is unable to communicate, seen and not heard.  She symbolizes how Elizabethan (and other era’s) women must have felt – without a voice – especially in the world of arranged marriages, a custom that indirectly led to Lavina’s abject, pitiable state.

Lavina’s performance was moving, you could not take your eyes off her – you felt her pain and frustration. My only gripe is that they used their elbows to write the names of her attackers in the dirt, instead of using a stick held with her mouth and between her stumps, as Shakespeare’s stage direction describes. The bard had so few stage directions, and this one is so ripe with pathos and weirdness, I was sorry to see it ignored.

The  other woman in the play, Tamora, is ruled by revenge and lust, both nightmare and fantasy. She is later seen with the emperor, both adjusting their clothes, implying they just had sex and in a few scenes she is groping on the ground with Aaron, which was hilarious.

A victim without the power of expression or a ruthless, insatiable slut. I doubt few women in the Elizabethan audience did not get his social commentary.

Aaron, who has  then convinces Titus, exploiting the same ancient-world honor that led the general to slay a disobedient son, to cut off his hand and then reveals he has murdered his other sons by tossing their severed heads, then his hand, at the now crazed Titus (in an unfortunate ad-lib, Hagins yelped “go long” which tested my tolerance for their comic take on Titus).  

The play itself seems to play with time, or Shakespeare did not really pay it much mind because Tamora does give birth to Aaron’s son – at one point she does appear comically pregnant – and Aaron is given the baby, he kills the nurse, and flees with the child to find refuge with the Goths. It is unclear as to how much time has passed between the opening of the play and the birth of the child, but anticipating cinema, Shakespeare also was not one to let the plot interfere with a good story.

Titus sends his son Lucius to rise an army among his former enemy among the Goths and sends pleas to the gods – instead of shooting arrows, he tosses small scrolls, a nice touch – which leads Tamora to falsely conclude that he is mad and disguises herself – as revenge –  and her sons – as rape and murder – to fool Titus into believing they  his prayers were answered. Titus is considered the first tragedy by Shakespeare, and is an early play and you see many of the tropes – disguise, mistaken identity, feigned madness, shifting allegiance – he utilizes throughout the magnificent oeuvre. By this point, the climax of the play, the farcical elements are in full gale force.  The actor adopts what sounded like a Marlon Brando in the Godfather impression, again testing my patience, but by now I had become invested in their take on Titus. Titus had a shaved head and wore military garb– Aaron and Saturninus and Marcus wore suit and tie – and I wondered if the wardrobe selection was meant to imply commentary on the corporate and military allegiance taking over our democracy in the current era, perhaps the Brando mimickery and the military garb was a reference to Apocalypse Now, that Heart of Darkness where Colonel Kurtz becomes at one with our own inner savage. But this interchange also lended itself to comedy – Titus convinces Tamora – as Revenge – who is dressed as a sexy Satan, horns and tail and for no apparent reasons except for the sight gag, has her sons – Rape and Murder – on leashes and is whipping them forward.

Even those unfamiliar either know or can guess the rest --- Tamora as revenge, leaves and Titus with Lavina kills and beheads the sons. The final scene has Titus wearing a bloody apron and of course, serves the mother her sons and then kills Lavina, Titus, the emperor,  and himself.  It’s horrifying, maybe too horrifying to allow yourself to feel empathy and thus comedy offers some psychological refuge for the players and audience. Nonetheless, for laughs or for shock value, the war never ended  for Titus when the play began.

Lucius returns to this carnage, with Aaron, who in exchange for the baby’s life, revealed the Tamora’s scheme to Lucius.



The final lines are given to Marcus, in what I believed was a truncated revision of the final scene – my edition has different final lines and they are spoken by Lucius. (I only note this, and only realized it when I got home and re-read the play. I think messing with Shakespeare is basically fine and should be encouraged because Shakespeare will triumph over any modification).

Aaron, bound and lost to his psychosis , is executed. Aaron’s evil is treated as a mental illness – some scholars feel that his pure malevolence is a reaction to the racism of the society, and there’s references to his soul being like his skin – black as coal – but Hagins seemed to prefer a post-racial pathology. His final gestures, bound, laughing, leering, on his knees, swaying back and froth n – were creepy and seemed to rapidly shed the comic attributes he exhibited in the earlier scene. It was a nifty trick, suddenly shattering our expectations.

Which brings me to the final gesture.  What happens to the love-child of Tamora and her evil moor lover is never specified in the play. In the final speech that concludes the nightmare, Marcus indicates that the “issue” should be destroyed.  And a surviving Andronicus son – Young Lucius (Elizabeth again, who was excellent in another bit of business where “he” kills a fly and leads to an interchange with Titus about the “new course of action,) holds the same knife to the baby. That’s how that scene closes, a baby is slain. The sins of the fathers (and mothers) can only be atoned by the death of their sons – an essential tenet of ancient Rome, which Renaissance society both emulated and transcended. Okay, so maybe some of the over-the-top antics had to be tolerated – although many were enjoyable – but in the end, with this gesture, the truth of Titus was understood. Evil and honor are two sides of the same kind, and often what distinguished them is arbitrary, depending on who is in power. That just isn’t a truth for the ancient world, but for our current world of constant war.

Titus, like Macbeth, returns victorious, but what is the psychic price of spilling all that blood for the sake of king and country? What is worse, to eat your children or to force someone to eat theirs? Is the price of being subject to the ultimate revenge any worse than seeking that same revenge?

Maybe I did not love this Titus, but this Titus inspired those same disquieting queries Titus always does. Maybe I like violence. Not in real life, I’m a meek and mild guy and avoid confrontations.  I hate actual violence. I abhor war. But in films, novels, plays – fiction – I love it. It’s perfect drama – a conflict that always leads to a resolution. I like it bloody, so I am not one to dismiss the violence –both real and imagined –  in Titus. Many do. But I welcome it, because without it we cannot truly understand evil or honor.

And Bloom – I disagree with him but dig this quote: “Nothing else by Shakespeare is so sublimely lunatic, it prophesizes not King Lear and Coriolanus, but Artaud.”

I love Artaud, one of my prized books is a collected works translated by Susan Sontag. Back in the punk rock days, I saw a one-man play of Artaud, who was considered a proto-punk. He wrote a famous review of Monkey Business, the Marx Brothers movie and of course invented the Theater of Cruelty. Whatever modern theater is, Artaud is an agreed-upon founder and maybe so is Titus.


















No comments:

Post a Comment