Imagine that Ingmar Bergman, before becoming a cinematic auteur, got his start writing and directing episodes of The Lone Ranger. Bergman might have given an unusual twist to a character here and there, or tried out an interesting shot, but week after week, he would have been bound by the conventions of the TV Western genre. The Lone Ranger is where Bergman would have demonstrated that he could make a popular TV show, not be Ingmar Bergman.
Similarly, when the young and inexperienced Will Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus--or revised an earlier script by someone else--he knew he'd have to follow the conventions of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy, imbuing all of the main characters with an insatiable thirst for blood, and loading up the script with murder, dismemberment and disemboweling. Shakespeare followed all the rules and cranked out a play that would remain a hit for some 15 years ... and then be dismissed as a hokey and crude period piece, kind of like we regard The Lone Ranger today.
Yet Titus Andronicus is somehow holding its own in the Shakespeare canon. Perversely, Shakespeare's lesser plays (such as Titus and Two Gentlemen of Verona) are much more likely to be encountered on stage, at least in Tucson, than such assured if peculiar late works as Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. (When the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre ventured into Shakespeare's late romances three years ago, it mounted the wobbliest work in the set, Pericles.) Now, Arizona Repertory Theatre is doing what it can to keep Titus Andronicus, two hours of mangled gore, on life support. The effort is valiant and fascinating, if not always successful.
The play's title character is a fourth-century Roman general who has vanquished the invading Goths; captured their queen, Tamora, and her sons; and put the eldest son to death, despite Tamora's pleas. The Goth queen swears revenge, in which she is assisted by her two surviving sons, Demetrius and Chiron, and her aide and lover, a Moor named Aaron. Roman emperor Saturninus takes Tamora as his bride, placing her in an advantageous position. Her first targets are Titus' daughter, Lavinia. Demetrius and Chiron rape her, cut off her hands and tongue, and kill her husband, who happens to be the emperor's brother and sometime rival. From there, the action descends to further dismemberment, slaying and even cannibalism.
Just in case we're not paying attention, scenic designer Tom Benson has crafted a pair of channels running down each side of the set, through which blood courses as the violence peaks. And the very first thing we see, at ground level, is a man's lifeless head, around which flies buzz.
This being a college production with a large cast, the acting is uneven, but some of it is quite impressive. Unfortunately, some of the greatest trouble comes with the most experienced actor on stage, faculty member Kevin Black as Titus. Black is certainly an accomplished actor; he was superb in the UA's Henry IV three years ago. But his approach to Titus, at least in the play's first half, is offhand, even before the character cuts off his own hand. In other productions, I've seen Titus driven from first to last by anger, Titus as a world-weary man of war trying unsuccessfully to put violence behind him, and Titus as a wry plotter. But Black's Titus starts off as nothing more than an imperial yes-man. Nothing in his staccato, Patrick McGoohan-style delivery nor in his static facial expression helps us understand his motivations or his inner conflicts. Perhaps the point is that this Titus has no inner conflicts, and that's what leads to trouble, but the concept isn't supported well enough to hang a play on.
In contrast, newcomer Claire Buchignani is a fascinating Tamora. Shakespeare doesn't bother to make her more than a one-note character, but Buchignani sings that note with a variety of inflections. She's a convincing deceiver, and a Shakespearean actress of facility and focus; if she'd just tone down the maniacal laughter on one of her exits, she'd be beyond serious criticism.
Among the other strongest performers are Jonathan Kobritz and John Shartzer, exceptionally unsavory as Tamora's sons; Tim McKiernan, the dangerously petulant emperor; Nate Weisband, gleeful in the Machiavellian villainy of Aaron; and Jeremy Selim as Titus' steadfast brother Marcus, a portrayal of heart and dignity.
Kyle Schellinger's costumes show a fine eye for detail, down to the grass stains on the back of the ravished Lavinia's garment, and the lighting and sound design maintain Arizona Repertory Theatre's high standards.
In the end, it's director Brent Gibbs who displays the greatest creativity, without coming between us and Shakespeare. He keeps the action on a human scale rather than resorting to monumental camp, makes good use of overhead projection of stage directions (it sounds like a gimmick, but is actually effective) and frames the play with a disturbing image.
Gibbs has rearranged a few of the final lines so that Aaron has the last word. Buried up to his neck and left alone to starve, this proto-Iago remains defiantly unrepentant; Gibbs leaves us with a particularly ugly view of human nature. And yet, think back to Titus' earlier debate with his bother about the killing of a fly, and remember the play's initial stage picture, that lifeless head, which we now know to have been Aaron's. The man's poisoned-soul invective is ultimately reduced to the buzzing of flies.