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Shakespeare crafts torture-porn in weirdly compelling Titus Andronicus 

Georgia Shakespeare stages a memorable production of the Bard's most notorious tragedy

Before I saw Richard Garner’s production of Titus Andronicus, a thunderstorm rolled in and proceeded to rage and rumble outside Georgia Shakespeare for nearly the entire show. After Titus Andronicus ended and the house lights came up, the audience responded with a collective sigh of relief and nervous laughter. It was both the right environment and the right response to Shakespeare’s most notorious play, a ritualistic bloodbath nearly impossible to take seriously.

Yet Garner and company do manage to take Titus Andronicus seriously, presenting its grisly, wrenching effects and demented situations as credibly as they can. Garner, Georgia Shakespeare’s producing artistic director, offers no cerebral deconstruction of the play like Julie Taymor’s screen version of Titus, or use of the script to justify a series of wild effects like Nancy Keystone’s memorable 2003 production of another weird one, Cymbeline. Venturing where angels fear to tread, Garner and his actors stage a Titus that’s surprisingly compelling, if thematically underwhelming.

Chris Kayser plays Titus, a general who led 22 of his 25 sons to their deaths in war, but returns to victorious to Rome with Goth royalty as his prisoners, including proud, ruthless Queen Tamora (Tess Malis Kincaid). When Titus ceremonially executes Tamora’s first-born son, she vows revenge, and conveniently attains a position to exact it when Rome’s mercurial Emperor Saturninus (Joe Knezevich) takes a fancy to her.

With so many characters already capable of atrocity, the play scarcely needs the services of diabolical Aaron the Moor (Neal A. Ghant, milking the bad guy role). The dialogue frequently equates Aaron’s skin color with evil. It’s a testament to the play’s other flaws that people seldom stop to comment on its racist implications. At Aaron’s urgings, Tamora’s nasty sons (Michael Bradley Cohen and Casey Hoekstra) rape Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Sarah M. Johnson), then cut off her tongue and hands so she can’t tell the tale. The mutilation happens off-stage, but we see the consequences in the equivalent of agonizing close-up, with Johnson conveying the magnitude of her trauma.

Around this time, Titus’ two sons accidentally — no, really — fall into a hole containing Saturninus’ murdered brother. The pressure of so many calamities drives Titus insane. Kayser makes sense of a wildly inconsistent role. The actor carries the character from successful general to grinning lunatic, but he can’t infuse Titus with the kind of larger, nobler dimensions that mark Shakespeare’s classic tragedies.

Scholars believe Titus Andronicus was Shakespeare’s first tragedy, almost certainly written before he turned 30. When characters argue who gets to cut off a hand, you can almost see the young Shakespeare trying to shock his audience while imitating the luridly successful plays of his day. Titus proves similar to the work of Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe — Aaron the Moor proclaims his villainy in detailed speeches reminiscent of Marlowe’s similarly stereotypical Jew of Malta, while an absurd sequence in which Tamora and her sons don masks to dupe Titus resembles the disguise scenes of Doctor Faustus.

In Titus, Shakespeare pushed his raw genius to think of the most monstrous theatrical effects as he could, but neglected character and theme. He wasn’t exactly squeamish later in his career — recall the onstage blinding scene from King Lear, and the epithet “Out, vile jelly!” Where the violence heightens the catharsis of the other plays, Titus’ gore diminishes its emotional release.

Georgia Shakespeare doesn’t exactly redeem Titus Andronicus, but does make it undeniably compelling. It’s like watching a torture-porn horror flick like Hostel, only with dialogue by one of the English language’s greatest poets. Audiences should treat attending the show like a dare: Have you got the guts to take the Titus challenge?

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