Shakespeare Theatre’s ‘Titus Andronicus’ strikes close to the bone. Repeatedly.

JUST HANGING AROUND: Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2018. Directed by Brian B. Crowe. Foreground: Fiona Robberson as Lavinia, Bruce Cromer as Titus; dangling: Quentin McCuiston as Chiron, Torsten Johnson as Demetrius. Photo: Jerry Dalia.
JUST HANGING AROUND: Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2018. Directed by Brian B. Crowe. Foreground: Fiona Robberson as Lavinia, Bruce Cromer as Titus; dangling: Quentin McCuiston as Chiron, Torsten Johnson as Demetrius. Photo: Jerry Dalia.
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If you think Hollywood’s cornered the market on violent entertainment, William Shakespeare begs to differ.

Titus Andronicus, which runs through Aug. 5, 2018, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, makes Game of Thrones look like a sweet bedtime story.

Stabbings?  Compared to this play, the shower scene in Psycho is a gentle exercise in exfoliation.

Sexual assault?  Check. Dismemberment?  Check. Cannibalism? Check.

Shakespeare’s first tragedy could have been titled Tit for Tat. This fictional story pits Romans vs. Goths in a no-holds-barred battle to even scores.

“Titus forces us to take a long, hard look at how far we would go for family in terms of revenge,” director Brian Crowe writes in the liner notes.

CLOSE SHAVE: 'Titus Andronicus' by William Shakespeare, at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2018. Directed by Brian B. Crowe. Foreground L-R: Clark Scott Carmichael as Lucius and Chris White as Aaron. Photo: Jerry Dalia.
CLOSE SHAVE: ‘Titus Andronicus’ by William Shakespeare, at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2018, directed by Brian B. Crowe. Foreground L-R: Clark Scott Carmichael as Lucius and Chris White as Aaron. Photo: Jerry Dalia.

Suppose something unspeakable happened to your child or parent…and the legal system and your community shunned you…and then, suddenly, you had power over your tormentors.

Many law-abiding citizens would go to the dark side, Crowe suspects. Shakespeare makes a compelling — and sometimes excruciating — case for this grim take on human nature.

Titus, a Roman commander (played with maniacal glee by Bruce Cromer), pays dearly for choosing honor over compassion and forgiveness.

When he approves the sacrifice of a Goth prisoner of war to avenge his sons’ deaths, the POW’s mother–the Goth queen Tamora (Vanessa Morosco)–plots her revenge after becoming Empress of Rome.

She gets plenty of help from her barbarous sons Chiron (Quentin McCuiston) and Demetrius (Torsten Johnson), and from her scheming lover, Aaron the Moor (Chris White), who is unrepentant for his villainy.

But two can play the revenge game. After enduring frightful personal losses and injuries, and witnessing horrors inflicted upon his chaste daughter Lavinia (Fiona Robberson), Titus lays a wicked trap of his own.

Victorian audiences considered Titus Andronicus brutally improbable. Critics reappraised it after the atrocities of World War II.

“It is the Shakespeare play for our time, a work of art that speaks directly to the age of Rwanda and Bosnia,” Jonathan Forman observed in 1999, reviewing a film version for the New York Post.

The Madison production has a few awkward laughs, of the “Here’s Johnny!” variety from The Shining. As the blood (red confetti) flows freely, a little comedy is welcome relief from the carnage.

But when Lavinia must carry off a severed appendage without the benefit of hands, one giggles guiltily and wonders: The Bard is having a bit of macabre fun with us, right?

The minimalist set is stark and gloomy. In a story short on heroes, characters are distinguished by degrees of badness.

Tamora, her boys and her lover all vie for low honors. They are despicably, abjectly, rottenly, bad to the bone. Which is a roundabout way of saying the actors playing them are really good.

When the two hours are over, you long for a nice Mother Teresa documentary. 

Guess we should be thankful Shakespeare never saw modern weaponry. Then, Titus Andronicus would play like a dispatch from the BBC or CNN. And that would not be entertaining at all.

Titus Andronicus has performances through Aug. 5, 2018, at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ, at Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., Madison. Tickets start at $49. Call 973-408-5600.

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