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Blood on our doorstep.

Once upon a time, Titus Andronicus, with its limb-lopping, progeny-cooking savagery, seemed a joke--an Elizabethan revenge extravaganza so far off the deep end it was laughable. But no more. Seeing director Julie Taymor's Titus at New York's Theatre for a New Audience in March, the day before a trip to Cambodia and just after visiting an art exhibit from Sarajevo, I may have been especially primed for the production's message. But to anyone awake in this century, Taymor's point is clear: Shakespeare's ultimate paradigm of inhumanity has become our world. And, moreover, we devour such brutality for entertainment.

Boasting one of Shakespeare's messiest and least familiar plots, Titus starts right out with gore: Titus, Rome's great general, returning victorious from a 10-year war against the Goths to an adoring crowd, orders the Goth queen Tamora's eldest son burned and hacked to pieces in reprisal for Rome's slain warriors. He declines the people's offer to make him emperor, relinquishing the crown to Saturninus, sleazy son of the former ruler. Saturninus instantly demands his brother's betrothed, Titus's daughter Lavinia, in marriage--then, after Titus slays his own son for trying to prevent this "rape," Saturninus loses interest in Lavinia, takes up with Tamora and declares Titus his enemy.

By now, the scent of blood is in the water. Tamora's sons proceed to kill Saturninus's brother, then rape and brutally maim Lavinia, cutting off her hands and tongue. The frenzy of vengeance builds until Titus, perhaps mad, bakes a pie containing Tamora's sons and serves it to their mother. After the predictable paroxysm of banquet slaughter, Titus's son Lucius remains among the corpses to pick up the pieces. In Shakespeare's view, the time is back in joint, and a sadder, wiser next generation will carry on.

Taymor's interpretation of the bloody text is less sanguine. For her, the horror of Titus reflects not an aberration in history but the sum of our heritage. She presents the play in a blend of styles suggesting a compendium of Western culture from classical to punk. Armor-clad Roman soldiers in Act I greet bureaucrats sporting modern suits and ties. Back-lit classical columns double as pinball machines for Tamora's skinhead sons. It's all of a piece.

More troubling, as Taymor makes clear, this dubious collection of values is the next generation's patrimony. She frames the action with the play's two children: Titus's grandson, young Lucius, and the infant son of Tamora and the Moor Aaron, her illicit lover. The children are minor characters in Shakespeare's text. In this production, they are the point.

A boy playing war

When the curtain rises, a boy wearing a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers (and a paperbag mask over his head) plays war at a kitchen table. As air-raid sirens blare, he bashes soldiers together, douses them with ketchup and mustard and then, increasingly frantic, hides under the table.

That game over, he moves to the side of the stage to observe the next battle entertainment: the play of Titus Andronicus. A silent acolyte, the boy takes the general's sword and helmet, hands him a towel, removes the shroud covering the dead Roman soldiers. Halfway though, he enters the main story in the character of young Lucius, and then remains on stage through the final massacre, quietly watching. And learning.

Meanwhile, Tamora's infant--his mother already butchered and his father soon to be tortured to death--is placed on the banquet table, amid the remains of dinner and the diners, in a tiny coffin. So, in Taymor's version, Lucius does not honor his promise to spare his enemy's child after all. The last sounds we hear as the lights go down are infants wailing--and the screeching barks of birds of prey.

What makes this vision all the more disturbing is that it shows people harvesting horror not to understand it, but as a diversion. Atrocity can make for tantalizing theatre. Taymor underscores this irony, playing on the idea that her Titus is an example, as well as an expose, of savagery as entertainment. She frames the normally open St. Clements performance space with a bright gold proscenium arch closed by a red velvet curtain. When the curtain rises, it's immediately echoed by the red formica table on which young Lucius plays war games--more slaughter as recreation. As the carnage builds, additional gold frames with red curtains descend from the flies or are carried onto the stage to reveal nightmare images, wordless evocations of the main action: a dismembered body, gasping its final breaths; Lavinia wearing a deer's head being ravished by Tamora's sons, who have tiger bodies. Two weird clowns--a blubbery henchman and a trench-coated spook--present these attractions with the air of sideshow barkers.

Blazes of red

Composer Elliot Goldenthal's music fuels the show's jig between the edge of the unbearable and a curdled carnival. When the tongueless Lavinia spies a book that will enable her to communicate her outrage, hollow, eerie background sounds recall the after-vibrations of a Chinese gong. Then, as she scrawls the names of her attackers, the music rises to dissonant frenzy--topped by the sound of a warped hurdy-gurdy. For the framed nightmare displays, Goldenthal layers on a zany blare of circus fanfare.

The universe of Titus is black, gray and white, apart from occasional blazes of red--sideshow curtains, Saturninus's smoking jacket and, of course, blood. Derek McLane's set consists mainly of an angled scrim, painted with a Roman facade, plus sundry columns. A footed porcelain bathtub, perfectly out of period, serves as a washing trough for Titus's troops, a pit in the forest for Aaron's treachery, and a bathtub. Costumes, by Constance Hoffman, constitute commentaries: Lavinia spends most of the play in her torn petticoat; white-haired Aemilius, a bureaucrat loyal to whomever holds power, could pass for any of a dozen U.S. senators in his tailored suit and tie.

Taymor guides her cast along the treacherous border between horror and comedy, nudging them over both sides of the line as needed. Robert Stattel endows some of Titus's madder rants with a self-mocking wit that not only saves him from being ridiculous, but gives him the dignity and complexity of self-awareness. When Lavinia's pitifulness crosses into absurdity (for example, when, handless herself, she carries her father's severed hand in her mouth), Miriam Healy-Louie goes with the humor, placing the pathos into higher relief.

The result is a disturbing encounter with ourselves--and a wonderful piece of theatre. The pleasure of this production is partly its precise, subtle layering of meaning and mood, and partly that Taymor has rescued a long-ignored piece of our theatrical heritage. For all its apparent heavy-handedness (or missing-handedness), Shakespeare's Titus turns out to be a superbly crafted, finely-tiered, apocalyptic vision--of what happens when people value their own children and not anyone else's, when nobody will break the cycle of escalating revenge. How amazing, in 1994, to rediscover a Shakespeare play. How awful to realize that Shakespeare's most brutal portrait of a world is our own.

Critic Eileen Blumenthal is a professor of theatre arts at Rutgers University.
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Title Annotation:a production of William Shakespeare's 'Titus Andronicus'
Author:Blumenthal, Eileen
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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