Titus serves up revenge, blood rare and steaming hot

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And daily the kids’ special is…: James Carpenter (in apron) is Titus in California Shakespeare Theater’s first-ever production of Titus Andronicus. Anna Bullard as Lavinia is pushing the cart, while seated at the table are Stacy Ross as Tamora and Rob Campbell as Saturninus. Below: Carpenter and Bullard deal with unimaginable torture. Photos by Kevin Berne

Director Joel Sass has such a strong, infectious sense of storytelling that he even makes Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, proclaimed to be the Bard’s bloodiest play, enjoyable.

It’s not that the play, which has a single issue on its gory mind – the futility and waste of revenge – isn’t interesting. It’s compelling and hideous at the same time.

But what Sass does for the California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening production of Titus – the first in Cal Shakes’ 37-year history – is heighten the theatricality of the tale, elevate it to grand and glorious storytelling rather than an endlessly horrific parade of one bloody special effect after another.

Of course there’s blood, and lots of it. First we see bloody swords (but not how they got that way). Then it’s a blood-smeared lip from a fight over a woman. Then the slicing and dicing begins in earnest. The blood, it does flow, especially from slit throats.

This is a muscular production of a tough play, mean in spirit and humor. If Shakespeare’s goal is to illuminate the way ego-driven revenge turns life into a cesspit for everyone involved, he certainly succeeds.

But Sass creates a surprisingly beautiful production. At first, the crumbling cement bunker of Emily Greene’s set seems too solid and overwhelming. But then Russell H. Champa’s start playing with the surfaces and shadows of the set, and suddenly the stage can be as menacing or as lovely as Sass needs it to be. There are masked extras, banners fluttering in the chilly summer breeze and some striking costumes (by Paloma H. Young), all in service to imbuing some beauty and striking images into the stream of ugly behavior.

Even the way Sass transitions from one location to another – using moving columns that look like they’re made of rusty metal – can lend moments of grace.

When characters are awful in this play, they’re bone-deep awful. Aaron the Moore (played by Shawn Hamilton) has to be Shakespeare’s most unrepentantly revolting character – the only thing this man regrets is any good deed he might accidentally have committed. He causes deaths and mutilations as a means of entertaining himself.

If he’s at the top of the horrible heap, the power mongers and the sadistic spoiled brats are just underneath. In the first category falls Saturninus (Rob Campbell), Rome’s new emperor and possessor of very funny dirty little chuckle. His new bride is Tamora (Stacy Ross), the queen of the recently vanquished Goths, and though she pretends to be a hot-to-trot new bride, she’s really scheming, Lady Macbeth-style, how she’s going to exact her revenge on all of Rome.

Tamora’s two sons, Demetrius (Chad Deverman) and Chiron (David Mendelsohn) are twisted, beast-like savages whose disgusting fate – probably the most famous aspect of this infrequently produced play – is, it must be admitted, quite dramatically satisfying. And from the looks of the diners on stage, quite tasty.

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The Army of Awful unleashed in the play does its worst (best?) work on Roman hero Titus (the always remarkable James Carpenter) and the members of his family who haven’t already been wiped out by battle duty.

It would be nice if Shakespeare gave us a little more to like about Titus and his clan other than their inherent morality (especially compared to everybody else), but in the end, that’s what defines them and makes us root for them. That morality, though, is hardly an effective shield. The cost of grief and loss and horror takes its toll, especially on Titus.

With the garish, over-done makeup worn by the actors, we’re continually reminded that this is theater at its most grandiose, but such theatricality doesn’t always mask the fact that Shakespeare is really going overboard here. The rape and mutilation of a young woman (the noble Anna Bullard as Lavinia) is especially hard to stomach in an evening’s “entertainment.” When the playwright has Lavinia, whose hands have been cut off and tongue cut out, carry her father’s severed hand in her teeth, you know there’s something more than emphasis on horror going on. Perhaps he’s gotten a little carried away (happily, director Sass keeps the hand tastefully inside a satchel).

It could be dark humor, but after a certain point, all this pretend violence is really not funny. And for the ending to hit home all that horror and gore needs to have added up to something.

In this three-hour production, thankfully, the ending does pack a wallop. The bodies pile up, the horror ebbs, but the cycle continues. As you might expect, the ever-astute Shakespeare didn’t have much faith in mankind to ever end the seemingly nonstop rush of violence and idiocy spawned by revenge.


California Shakespeare Theater’s Titus Andronicus continues through June 26 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station. Tickets are $35-$66. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

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