Saturday, October 24, 2015

'Blood will have blood': EclecticPond meets Shakespeare the theater tyro feeling his way through revenge and slaughter

Anyone preparing to see "Titus Andronicus" on the stage does not get much encouragement from commentators on Shakespeare. My favorite among modern Bard critics, the generous and judicious Harold Goddard, opens his two-page essay (in "The Meaning of Shakespeare") with this tight-lipped sentence: "All lovers of Shakespeare would be glad to relieve the poet of responsibility for that concentrated brew of blood and horror, Titus Andronicus."

Wishful thinking is not enough to absolve Shakespeare of a pretty certain claim to sole authorship of this revenge tragedy, set in late ancient Rome at a time when the decaying empire was being menaced by the Goths. The thin line between civilization and barbarism was never thinner than it is here.

EclecticPond Theatre Company has mounted a gritty, robust interpretation of a drama with an excess of mayhem and unalloyed evil designs.  It has been supposed that the burgeoning author was attempting a gruesome parody of a genre traceable to the Roman playwright Seneca, or else that he had yet to find his way to craft a true tragic hero and a course of action both plausible and insightful.

Titus Andronicus is a Roman general unequal to what his status requires.
With a setting of shreds and patches, and the actors cryptically daubed and clad in a vintage-shop gallimaufry of modern dress, the production signals a world of misrule, confined to power plays among the elite and the eternal desire of war captives for payback. Everyone has his own notion of justice, but Shakespeare wastes little of his characters' energy on moral considerations.

Hints of magnanimity in the titular hero soon come through as weakness, and the impulsive manner in which Titus participates in the cruelty all around him feels like purposeless flailing against his victimization. He's not evil, yet he doesn't excite much sympathy, either. Despite being a much-laureled Roman general, he's an empty toga. In James McNulty's performance,  these contradictory notes are well-managed.

The audience may come closest to understanding Titus when he says: "If there were reason for these miseries, / Then into limits could I bind my woes." But it's a world without limits he's fated to occupy right up through the last scene's serial slaughter. And there is no reason behind the miseries he and others endure and inflict upon one another.

Tamora assumes a submissive attitude toward the Emperor.
Matt Anderson's clearcut performance as the general's brother, Marcus Andronicus, suggests some grasp on the need for civic order. But he too is swept up in the bloody chaos, more than the fragile Roman establishment can handle in the spoils-of-war threat posed by the Goth queen Tamora, a time-release capsule of poison in  Kelly Gualdoni's portrayal. Once Tamora is empress by decree of the power-mad Emperor Saturninus (Zachariah Stonerock), the wheels of evildoing are set spinning. Stonerock's full-throttle style fully suits the sweep and excess of  the play's characteristic speech and action.

Indeed, since it's not easy to criticize Shakespeare even in one of his worst plays, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt (and considerable credit to Thomas Cardwell's directing): He may have been experimenting with matching his dramatic-verse skills to his characters' extreme behavior. I hear him asking himself: Can I get as much evil into what the characters say as into what they do?

There's a certain headlong tempo to the cast's delivery of the script's iron-clad iambic pentameter. This seemed less a flaw in the performance I saw than a way of unifying words and action. The playwright's experiment, if that's what Cardwell is seeing in the young Shakespeare, eventually paled for him, and his genius cast it aside. The only evil that is allowed to bloom in "Titus Andronicus" is that expressed by Aaron, an unrepentant sinner effectively modulated in tone in Joanna Winston's performance. Aaron's proud ownership of his paternity in the case of Zamora's bastard son was beautifully played. But touches of humanity, even distorted, are precious few in "Titus."

Another aspect that became clearer for me in seeing the tragedy is the claustrophobic quality of the images. All of them  are like iron filings making a pattern according to the magnetic force of revenge. Particularly striking is the way the natural world is emblematic of the characters' motives and thoughts. You don't get any imaginative play about nature, like that lovely passage in "Macbeth" when Duncan and Banquo arrive at Macbeth's castle and pause to marvel at the pleasant environment. Of course, such a passage also shows Shakespeare had learned much about dramatic irony as well by the time he wrote the Scottish play.

What makes "Titus Andronicus" unsatisfying even in such a vigorously played and  fluently executed production is this constrained quality. A world of unbound woes seems choked. Shakespeare needed to find reason for the miseries he put on the stage before he could do his best work. He was after other game in "Titus Andronicus," and he ran it to ground obsessively.

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