Telling artists you love their early works can be a double-edged sword. What would the great Bard think of such a compliment? Well, we can no longer ask him. But in his lifetime, “Titus Andronicus” was a money-maker—one that began early in his career. Now, more than 425 years later, it is showing at The Browncoat Pub and Theatre.
“Titus” is an interesting piece in Shakespeare’s cannon. Possibly its closest companion would be “The Scottish Play.” Both are based on loose revenge stories that the Bard appropriated from previous sources. In modern parlance this is called plagiarism, which is then countered with, “No, I took what you wrote, reimagined it and improved upon it.” Besides sharing a similar origin story, “Titus” and the recent production of “Macbeth” by Dram Tree Shakespeare also both share JR Rodriguez, who played Banquo in the latter production, and the title role of Titus at Browncoat.
“Titus Andronicus” can be compared to today’s auteur, Quentin Tarantino. Yet, the Bard executes rhyme, meter and a more defensible plot. It is gory. It is tough. It is revenge boiled down to the barest of bare.
Titus Andronicus (Rodriguez) has been fighting on behalf of Rome most of his adult life. He returns to Rome victorious with prisoners of war, including Tamora (Lily Nicole) and her retinue, made up of her daughters and her lover, Aaron (Darius Bego). Titus comes home to find the populace ready to crown him emperor. Instead, he throws his support behind the eldest son of the recently deceased emperor, Saturninus (Nicholas Reed), who is currently locked in a struggle for the throne with his brother, Bassianus (Andrew Liguori). Titus makes some questionable decisions regarding the two princes and his daughter, Lavinia (Arianna Tysinger). But don’t we all when we think we are doing the right thing?
His sons, Mutius (Paul Homick) and Lucius (Hal Cosec), try to argue for a more moderate road but Titus is unbending; that’s ultimately one of his fatal flaws. After killing one of Tamora’s daughters (Shawn Sproatt), Tamora swears vengeance upon Titus and his family. So begins an amazing trial of blood and gore: Lavinia is raped, her tongue is cut out, her hands chopped off, Titus loses a hand, Bassianus is murdered … and that’s just in the first half. The second half is like “Hamlet” meets Jeffrey Dahmer. I personally would advise copious amounts of whiskey to lubricate all of it.
So, “Titus” is a show that can be played a myriad of ways. It’s deadly serious in its earnestness, camp and even comedy (dangerous and difficult choice but amazing if pulled off). Like all of the Bard’s work, the curiosity of the production is not that we do not know what is coming, but rather the fascinating way the director and performers give it life.
Obviously, Rodriguez is the ringer in the production: the veteran brought in not just because of his actual age for the role but because of his range of ability and experience. He attacks Titus with ferocity. The dawning realization of what has actually been wrought is just one of the most lovely moments I—as an audience member—have shared with Rodriguez on stage. The differentiation between Titus as loyal, honor-bound subject, and Titus as a “crazed” maniac, and Titus as a cold, calculated revenge artist are all distinct shades of a brilliant, tactical mind. It is his determination and charisma that push his younger castmates to keep up with him.
How he had the mental and emotional reserves to develop Titus while playing Banquo is astonishing, but not quite as surprising as Arianna Tysinger (Rodriguez’s much junior castmate) pulling off “Low Hanging Fruit” at UNCW while preparing Lavinia. Lavinia is a tough part for so many reasons. Among them is the necessity to be onstage with no voice and no hands for over half your stage time, but still able to communicate and be present. At one point Titus’ severed hand is returned to him, along with a severed head. Lavinia already has lost her hands and tongue. Rodriguez puts the package containing his hand between Tysinger’s teeth for her to carry. Her response is worth the ticket price for the evening. When combined with the rest of the show, that ticket is a bargain.
I have to give the director, Josh Bailey, credit. It is always scary to make a directorial debut. Starting with Shakespeare instead of something with a few less expectations is a pretty serious leap into the deep end of the pool. Bailey has assembled a really wonderful cast and pulled some startling and noteworthy performances from several people, including Nick Reed, Andrew Liguori and Ron Hasson. Casting Lavinia’s tormentors as women (Meredith Grace Stanton and Olivia Arokiasamy) is an interesting choice, which does question what sexual power over women means and how it is wielded in society. Of course, he cast some heavy hitters to ensure his success, and as many directors will say: Casting is the most important part of the job.
There are several players who pick up multiple roles throughout the show. Some of their performances are the more interesting to watch. Shawn Sproatt, for example, dies multiple times as a Goth daughter, a doctor, and again appears as a messenger. Each is distinctive, with motivation and execution.
Under all this blood and gore is a military campaign, and Bailey has made sure the military culture permeates all sides of the show. Cosec, especially as Lucius, revels in the warrior culture he finds himself leading. The like-father-like-son aspirations between him and Rodriguez are not the most touchy-feely that Shakespeare ever wrote. These two men really do bring the audience to the brink of their seats with their relationship.
This is a tough show, and like Tarantino, it is better known for its shock value than for its real power. But Bailey and the cast have mined that power to bring a very good and accessible production to town. It’s especially good as an unexpected introduction to the Bard—particularly for a young man.