Let’s give Impact’s Titus a big, bloody hand

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Reggie White is Aaron and Anna Ishida is Tamora in the Impact Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Below: Lucius (Caitlyn Tella) comforts her grieving father, Titus (Stacz Sadowski). Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Anna Ishida has a scream to remember – the kind of scream that startles your unborn children. She could supplant Jamie Lee Curtis as the Queen of Scream, but until then, she’s wreaking bloody havoc in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, this season’s revitalized Shakespeare project at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre.

Artistic Director Melissa Hillman is particularly adept at trimming a Shakespeare play to its most vital parts and shooting it through with a kind of energy that tends to surprise anyone who has forgotten that, in the right hands, Shakespeare can be lean and mean.

With Titus, which is really the Saw of the Shakespeare canon, Hillman has her work cut out for her, not in the lean-and-mean department but more in the “why is this worth doing beyond the blood and gore?” department. Her adaptation, a brisk and blissfully brutal two hours, comes up with an interesting answer to that question.

Often dismissed as Shakespeare’s most violent and therefore most worthless tragedy, Titus has sort of come into its own in the last century or so. Our view of violence has finally caught up with or reverted back to the level seen in the play, which is remarkably high. Sons fare especially badly in the play, though the worst of it is saved for a loyal daughter. In many ways, Titus is a few sex scenes away from being a new cable series.

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Hillman and her cast – an astonishing 16 people on a stage that can feel crowded with two – achieve a tone here that really works. You see it established especially in the performances by Ishida as Tamora, the vengeful Queen of the Goths, and Stacz Sadowski as Titus, a brave soldier and questionable father. Ishida is tough and sexy and intense. She’s not exactly a cartoon villain, but she’s not exactly real either. She’s somewhere in between, and that’s just about perfect.

Sadowski’s Titus is trickier, especially in this abbreviated version. He goes from being a noble hero to the murderer of his son in minutes. He’s attempting to be a great man one minute and accusing everyone of treason the next. He’s all over the place emotionally – “the woefulest man that ever lived in Rome – and Sadowski, a big, imposing fella, can barely keep up. But when things start to get really intense, the actor’s canny performance fuses the raw emotion of loss and violence with the overblown revenge drama to create a man of Shatnerian dimensions.

After horrible rapes, mutilations and murders, Titus gets punked by Tamora’s lover, Aaron (Reggie White in a devilish performance). The results are horrific, but the scene gets laughs. How could they not? It’s silly and sad in equal measure and way too much of both. So why not play it like Capt. Kirk and make it work?

Unlike brainless slasher movies, Titus at least makes a potent point about the inevitably awful results of revenge, and Hillman’s production lets that come through loud and clear. This is a giddily gory affair with full credit going to blood technician and props designer Tunuviel Luv, blood captain Joe Mason, fight director Dave Maier and weapons captain Carlos Martinez (also a member of the cast) for emphasizing the futility (and entertainment value) of barbarous violence.

There’s some unevenness in the cast, but in addition to Ishida and Sadowski, there’s some impressive work by Mark McDonald and Mike McDonald (I’m going to go out on a limb and say these nearly identical young men are brothers) as evil brothers Chiron and Demetrius. To say they give deliciously wicked performances may be revealing too much.

Also affecting is Sarah Coykendall as the doomed Lavinia. In a victim role, Coykendall brings some real starch and strength. And a shout out to Martín Estévez for his videos – most notably a completely believable CNN debate between three talking heads arguing over who should be Emperor of Rome. It’s a nice contemporary touch. After all, what is senseless violence without the 24-hour news cycle?


Impact Theatre’s Titus Andronicus continues an extended run through April 7 at LaVal’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $12-$20. Call 510-224-5744 or visit www.impacttheater.com

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