Titus at PublicLab

(cross posted from The Bookfish)

An intense, high-spirited night last night at the Public.  Michael Sexton’s production of “Titus” was bloody bloody and lots of fun.  They really nailed the play’s strange combination of hyper-melodrama and almost-playfulness, leading up to an over-the-top finale at the final banquet, complete with (actual) buckets of blood, cartoon post-it notes, and a food-fight between Titus and Tamora with mushy pieces of pie.
In the chaos, Titus’s recipe almost sounded simple, a straightforward and literal way of making sense out of disorder –

Let me grind their bones to powder small,
And with this hateful liquor temper it,
And in that paste let their vile heads be bak’d.  (5.2.197-200)

Several performances stood out in a strong cast.  Jacob Fishel as Saturninus and Jennifer Ikeda as Lavina were both veterans of Red Bull’s brilliant Women beware Women in 2009, a production that gets better each time I remember it.  (I think about the old joke about Juan Rulfo, author of Pedro Paramo, whose reputation supposedly grew with each new novel he didn’t write.)  Fishe’ls fey Saturninus made me want a bigger part for him next time. Ikeda’s mute presence during Marcus’s interminable Ovidian lament upon discovering her maimed (“Alas, a crimson river of warm blood, / Like to a bubbling fountain…” 2.4.11-57) made a devastating critique of poetic fancies.
Ron Cephas Jones, who I thought did a decidedly mixed job as Caliban and Charles the wrestler in the Bridge Project’s As You Like It / Tempest double bill a few years ago, was a great Aaron: smart, sexy, charismatic , and powerful.  Strung up by Lucius and awaiting execution, he rained brags down on his captors’ heads –

Even now I curse the day — and yet I think
Few come within compass of my curse –
Wherein I did not do some notorious ill… (5.1.125-7)

Rob Campbell’s Lucius and Stephanie Roth Haberle’s Tamora were also strong, but I’m ambivalent about Jay O. Sanders as Titus.  He’s big and imposing, with a bear-ish presence that filled up the stage in army camo during the first scene — but too often, esp in the opening parts of the play, his bear was more teddy than grizzly.    He hit his stride after losing his mind, and in some ways the part felt more Lear-like and aged than I might have liked.  He made a compelling mad father, but less of a conquering general.  “I am the sea,” he claims when trumpeting his grief — but he didn’t quite get there, at least not for me.  The bad guys — Aaron, Saturninus, Tamora — had the flash in this production.
The lab-budget staging was great: a stack of maybe 3 dozen 8 x 4 plyboard sheets were moved, illustrated, and shuffled around to create almost everything — late in the action they were tables, kitchen counters, and an executioner’s board, earlier they had been thrones and gravestones and pits and caves.  I especially loved watching Frank Dolce, who played the boys’ parts, draw symbolic cartoons — birds, crowns, swords — on wood and on post-it notes, and Lavina’s mouth-held drawings in act 5 extended this conceit.
I also had the strange experience of slightly mis-hearing Aaron’s line about surprising Lavinia in the woods — I heard “The woods are roofless, dreadful, deaf, and dull,” but the line reads “ruthless” — and thinking Robert Frost.  Not sure what to make of that.

About Steve Mentz 661 Articles
I teach Shakespeare and early modern literature at St. John's in New York City.

5 Comments

  1. What a fantastic production it was. I am in agreement with you, Titus was less raw-power than I would have liked. The impact of the show most certainly goes to the villains Aaron, Tamora, and her sons. Perhaps the greatest effect for me was observing the evolution of the stage. Notice at the beginning the stage is minimalist and pristine at best. But as each scene brought forth more chaos and disorder, the props were merely left there. Food, dishes, arrows, post-it notes with drawings of birds and crowns, the tapestry of tortured drawings stained in blood all accumulate to the end where four bodies lay prostrate amongst the scene of blood.
    Most haunting was the young boy’s presence as he swallows up this environment with his young eyes, playing with the blood as something mysterious and new, drawing amongst bloodshed.
    I especially enjoyed the interpretive liberties taken when the “ghosts” of Tamora’s boys came in a bloody mess and served her the pie with curt effectiveness.

  2. Blood, Guts, Gore, and Cherry Pie – what more could one want on a rainy Tuesday evening! I agree with both Dr. Mentz and Tom; the villains certainly stole the show.
    However, what also cannot be ignored was the intensity with which the young boy (Frank Dolce) gazed at each of the actors as he pondered each major event (and even lesser ones); this intense gaze was certainly mesmerizing. The innocence speckled with wisdom was profound and his acting was extremely compelling as he dictated the fall to madness with charcoal drawings at times colored with blood.
    Oddly enough, at times the audience laughed and I wondered if it were true comic relief or simply horror and disbelief that drove this reaction.
    I knew we were in trouble when the stage crew came out wearing ponchos (and whispered such to Torrie); sure enough, buckets of blood were thrown onto the stage not once, not twice, but three times that I counted before I turned away.
    The deliciously “4 and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie” scene was horrific and terrifying but extremely effective.
    Titus was compelling as he dove into madness and these scenes were perhaps some of his best acting of the evening.
    With heads rolling, hands being chopped off, and brothers baked into a pie, Titus will live in my nightmares for some time to come. Unfortunately even the obstructed view seating did nothing to alleviate the gore!
    Bravo! actors of the Public!

  3. I am still thinking about Marcus’s speech when he sees Lavina for the first time after she had been attacked. Both the muted response and the heartbreaking voice of Marcus filled the room with such a loud silence.

  4. Lavinia’s brutalized appearance and then her subsequent re-enfoldment into her family affected me the most. It was absolutely mesmerizing to be forced to watch her bleed endlessly while her uncle poured forth poetry. The music that played during that scene also added to the strange lyricism of the violence and by the end of the scene the bloody image of Lavinia had gathered an odd beauty around itself. I always love the Public for its energetic stagings. I am looking forward to Gatz in the spring–a theatrical performance that is guided by the word for word reading of The Great Gatsby–no, really, I think it sounds amazing!

  5. I really like the transparency of the set for this production. As you all know, one of my main interests is place – looking at how interiors and spaces are negotiated. That the set was interactive and in a state of continual construction added to the rawness of the story. The costumes, as well, I found to add to my experience. Combined, these two elements added the feeling of guerrilla, renegade performance, echoing the anarchy of the play itself.

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