Titus Andronicus must be the revengiest revenge tragedy ever written. As the corpses accumulate, you can see Shakespeare vying to outdo his cruel models: the classical gross-out masters Ovid and Seneca, purveyors of mythical violence, cannibalism, and bizarre poetic transformations. Not to mention his contemporary Thomas Kyd, whose Spanish Tragedy—also featuring vengeance, Roman themes, and a severed tongue—was a game-changer in Elizabethan playwriting, establishing a whole genre of stark, metaphysical theater that inspired not only Titus but Hamlet, too.
Perhaps the most violent play in the English language, Titus—now playing at the Public, in an uneven but intelligent production by Michael Sexton—is still capable of shocking spectators who cling to Victorian ideas of pseudo-Shakespearean decorum. (The only serious shock competitor elsewhere in theater is Sarah Kane’s Blasted—itself deeply influenced by Shakespeare.) But, alongside the Grand Guignol, Titus is also a critical examination of the limits of representing violence in art. Even as Shakespeare piles unspeakable horror upon unimaginable atrocity, his characters quote literary comparisons from Ovid—at once reminding us of the playwright’s sources, and the status of the onstage savagery as one more bloody stylization. The play pushes actors to the very limit of what they can imagine and embody, while demanding that they remain aware of the action’s poetic precedents. And, as Titus and his stricken clan plead with the gods, wondering how they stand to see such suffering, we’re forced to ask ourselves how we can sit by and watch the devastation. Just what kind of pleasure do we derive from tragedy’s sweet violence?
Despite a slow start, Sexton’s production accomplishes the difficult task of staying faithful to both the carnage and the commentary. Deftly managing the play’s madcap careening between tragedy and absurdity, Sexton continually reminds us that the horrors are also meta-horrors. He begins with a young boy reading Ovid (though we later see him as Titus’s grandson, it could be Shakespeare himself). Later, the tyke’s backpack spills open and we see the rest of his bloodstained curriculum: Seneca and Kyd, the same as the Bard’s youthful education in literary violence.
At first, Titus shows us what seems to be a sturdy division between civilization and barbarity. Victorious general Titus Andronicus (Jay O. Sanders)—called “pious” for his devotion to Roman ideals—returns to Rome after a 10-year imperial adventure, bearing royal captives in tow: Tamora (Stephanie Roth Haberle), the queen of the Goths (Rome’s implacable foes), and her three sons. When Titus sacrifices one of the Gothlings to appease the souls of his own dead sons, this act of state-sanctioned violence kicks off a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge that obliterates the difference between Roman and Goth. Political allegiances rapidly re-align and everyone gets their hands bloody.
Tamora cozies up to the unstable Emperor Saturninus (Jacob Fishel), and forces Titus into the political wilderness. With the help of her Machiavellian lover, Aaron (Ron Cephas-Jones), and her psychotic children, she also arranges for Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Jennifer Ikeda) to be raped and mutilated, for two of his sons to be murdered, and for Titus’s hand to be chopped off (onstage!) under false pretenses. And that’s just the warm-up.
Titus, no slouch in the payback department, ultimately retaliates with even worse. Staging the yuckiest dinner party in theatrical history, he treats his guests to some Children Pot Pie. (Playfully acknowledging that he’s toying with a well-known genre, Shakespeare spins a wink-y plot twist where Tamora and her offspring, dressed as the personified figures of Revenge, Rape, and Murder, show up to “help” a supposedly bonkers Titus get his vengeance. Foolishly leaving the boys behind with Titus after the cavorting—still dressed as their crimes—Tamora ends up giving him the missing ingredients for his recipe and his revenge.)
Sexton’s production doesn’t find its feet until the exposition is out of the way and the really horrible stuff starts happening. Limited by a small cast, and saving his design effects for later, he fails to render a convincing picture of Rome’s austere might before everything comes apart. And some muddy storytelling in the early acts doesn’t help spectators keep track of who is doing what to whom—an essential tally in revenge plays, with their gruesome moral calculus. Two of Titus’s sons only appear in voiceover, a tricky device when the plot turns on knowing that they’ve been murdered and framed for another murder. But it’s worth the wait to see what comes afterwards: Sexton’s real interest is clearly in the extremity of the later scenes, and he delivers a splatter-fest.
The symbol of imperial power in ancient Rome was the fasces, a bundle of wooden rods bound up with an axe—the sharp edge that maintained Roman unity. At the Public, Brett J. Banakis’s set design plays a clever variation on the icon by putting a cord of plywood boards centerstage. At first, the tidy stack represents the score of sons Titus has sacrificed to Rome’s imperial ambitions in foreign wars. It’s at once triumphal monument and grim tomb. But, as the play gets messier, and the border between barbarism and civilization evaporates, the lumber gets flung pellmell around the stage—becoming surfaces for bitter slogans and scrawled Basquiat-like glyphs, wet with fresh blood. Rome, built on death, is coming apart from within. (Axes abound too: At the beginning, the graves of Titus’s most-recently slain sons are created by tacking a military-issue T-shirt to a board with a hatchet.) By the time we get to the play’s slaughterhouse conclusion, the stage looks like a nightmare painting by a psychiatric patient. The play’s final butcheries take place swamped by buckets of gore.
As Titus, Sanders, muted at first, has trouble establishing the initial image of a grimly patriotic super-soldier willing to kill his own son rather than be dishonored in the Capitol. But once things go wrong, his performance gets brilliantly right—finding the near-Beckettian bleak humor while also preserving Titus’s maddened grief. His strange aspirated sigh, ceding into helpless mordant laughter, as he realizes that he simply has no more tears to shed is one of many unexpected felicities. Sanders convincingly shows us a career murderer rubbed so raw by circumstance he hesitates to smoosh a fly—while still being capable of baking cannibal cake to complete the score-settling.
Late in the play, Sexton covers ruined Lavinia’s face with an eerie avian mask, absorbing her back into the Ovidian myth—of a violated princess mercifully transformed into a bird—that inspired her terrible fate. The production closes with bright chirping above the human wreckage: On Sexton’s stage revenge really does sing, with its own cruel music.