Titus Andronicus

By Disch, Thomas M. | The Nation, October 2, 1989 | Go to article overview

Titus Andronicus


Disch, Thomas M., The Nation


The eleventh offering of the Shakespeare Festival was reassuringly run-of-the-mill. Titus Andronicus is not a play likely

to shiver anyone's more sublime timbers, but,it is a rip-snorting, blood-and thundering melodrama in what must have been, even on its opening night, the worst possible taste. It opens with a pile of corpses, and the carnage continues at a steady pace, including at least three scenes so awesomely offensive that any contemporary play or movie that depicted the same events with similar energy would surely provoke Jesse Helms and the rest of the Senate to paroxysms of legislation.

Titus is so simple in its appeal and its actorly demands that I can't imagine a production failing to convey some sense of its glorious excess. However, the most recent offerings in the Shakespeare Festival's marathon - Cymbeline and an allstar Twelfth Night - received such unanimous pans (I was away from the city and missed both) that I did not approach the Delacorte Theater in Central Park with much hope. The one way Titus can be botched is to treat the Grand Guignol elements in the manner of Noh theater, with slow-motion ritualistic mayhem and crimson ribbons to represent blood as though to say, Just pretend this isn't happening."

Director Nichael Maggio, imported from Chicago's Goodman Theater, has created a Titus that is reasonably ghastly and gallops along at a good clip. Donald Moffat in the title role is good at rugged majesty, and if he doesn't reach the highest altitudes of tragedy in the scenes with his mutilated daughter, that is as much the fault of Shakespeare's strain-

ing poesy as Moffat's delivery. Pamela Gien is a vivid Lavinia, both in the scenes of her ravishment and of her mute sufferings, though in the later scenes she is necessarily limited to the tragic heights that Titus and his brother Marcus (Jon De Vries) can mount to.

De Vries and other good guys did their jobs well enough; but this is a play in which the villains have all the best lines, and the villains were wonderful, especially Kate Mulgrew as the vile Tam ora, Queen of Goth. In her most ignominious scene, as she urges her doltish sons Bill Camp and Don Harvey, and hard to say which was nastier) to rape Lavinia, Mulgrew epitomizes the play's distinctive spirit of gleeful evil. Sin for sin, not even Richard III can compare with Tamora for exultant infamy.

One of Tamora's sins, however, is her love for Aaron the Moor Keith David), and that is rather touchy, since the Andronicus clan make it very clear that they don't like blacks in their neighborhood. They become abusive to Aaron's infant son. Racial epithets are not infrequent. One can sympathize with Keith David's reluctance to steep himself in villainy as zestfully as Mulgrew, since to do so would be to represent just that stereotype of the black male that bigots since the time of Shakespeare have loved to hate. He does seem to enjoy himself when he's murdering the nurse, but then he is being Machiavellian, which is a higher, even kingly form of villainy.

As Satuminus, Don McManus is properly asinine, though I wonder how much of the effect he creates is the work of Lewis Rarnpino, who designed lus silly imperial get-up. The costumes are generically Olden, such as one might wear to any Renaissance fair-which is exactly right for a play so carelessly anachronistic. John Lee Beatty's set, a double colonnade painted a dark ash-gray that arcs around a central platform like the cross section of a little Coliseum, is serviceable and effective - and should be put into mothballs until the Shakespeare Festival has another go at Julius Caesar. Serviceable-that was the keynote of this production, and (in light of what's gone before) its badge of honor. My one real disappointment was with the banquet scene. The progeny pot pie that was served up to Tamora looked like a Sara Lee cheesecake. Tamora tucked into it with little show of appetite (no doubt that's how she's kept her girlish figure), and she'd consumed no more than a tablespoon of white crumbles

when Titus murders his daughter for honor's sake, reveals his cheesecake recipe and signals the final slaughter, which takes place too quickly for its particulars to be savored. …

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