- Titus Andronicus
The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego reinstituted its Summer Shakespeare Festival in 2004. Since then, a particular pattern has taken shape: with two well-known plays—this season, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Othello—a third, less often produced play is set in rotation. The repertory arrangement serves audiences well, providing opportunities to see works by Shakespeare that are rarely, or at least sporadically, staged: Two Noble Kinsmen (2004), The Winter's Tale (2005), Titus Andronicus (2006), and the upcoming Pericles (2007). The danger, however, is that this third play can be seen to be in competition with the two big-ticket shows, placing pressure on the director to find a way to draw both attention and audiences to his or her production. This exigency resulted in a dreamy, stylized, well-spoken and well-acted Two Noble Kinsmen that [End Page 123] garnered significant acclaim for director Darko Tresnjak. Tresnjak's Titus Andronicus, however, staged in the summer of 2006, illustrated the perils of placing the production too aggressively before the play.
Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's first tragedy. While we can debate how the play fit during the Elizabethan period within the rapidly developing trajectory of dramatic tragedy, or how it situated itself in relation to the popular sub-genre of revenge tragedy, it is certain that Shakespeare intended to write and was perceived as having written some form of a tragedy. Yet, Tresnjak announced explicitly his intention to upend our expectations. The Old Globe production opened with a musical number, "A Comedy Tonight," from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Even an audience sympathetic to radical adaptations of Shakespeare was forced to wonder whether Titus, a play with rape and mutilation at its center, could bear this weight. What sort of high-wire act would we witness that would allow us to balance horror and revulsion with the humor of musical comedy?
Suspicions arose as the characters took the stage. Titus and the Romans entered jackbooted, in combat fatigues and carrying automatic weapons. The Goths were wheeled out in a cage, nearly naked, covered only by ragged underclothes. The reference to Abu Ghraib could not have been clearer, and we began to perceive that we would not be presented after all with a comedy, celebrating, in the spirit of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, human weakness and folly, but with a satire, which sneered darkly at our proclivity towards selfishness and self-destruction. It became evident rather quickly as well that the production was wresting the play away from Titus, Tamora, Lavinia, even Aaron—that this would not be a production concerned with individuals but would be rather more broadly concerned with social phenomena. What we witnessed, in fact, was a series of loosely connected tableaux, in which the actors were detached from the narrative and were required to participate in clever moments of spectacle, the point of each seeming to be to provide some sort of inchoate indictment of violence (a la Michael Moore), the effect of each, however, being simply to call attention to the director's sense of irony. Chiron and Demetrius (played with feral energy by Michael Urie and Chris Bresky), dressed like comic hunters, with shotguns and floppy caps, headed into the woods to entrap Bassianus and assault Lavinia, skipping merrily to the tune of "The Teddy Bear's Picnic." After gulling Titus into offering up his own hand to save his son, Aaron started up a chainsaw, the stage went black, and the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" played above the whirring motor and the screams; when...