We should really think of “Titus Andronicus” as a guilty pleasure.
And like any guilty pleasure, this play can be riveting when firing on all cylinders in performance — which the joyfully anarchic production at the Living Room does most of the time. The show is constructed around one of this city’s finest Shakespearean actors — Mark Robbins — and even when the show teeters on the edge of total collapse the artistic integrity of all involved keeps it upright.
“Titus Andronicus” is easily Shakespeare’s most lurid play. Filled with atrocities, the Bard’s depiction of an empire in a rapidly accelerating stage of decay presents an extraordinarily bleak view of the human animal. As one theatergoer said on opening night, “This makes ‘King Lear’ look like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ ”
Yet, some of the verse is sublime and the plot’s melodramatic power will not be denied. This thing moves like a runaway train.
Director Kyle Hatley again exercises a wild theatrical imagination as he marshals a huge cast with minimal props and lighting effects. The copious gore is depicted with reams of red fabric, a nice stylistic touch that doesn’t always work smoothly in performance. The “blood” is built into Megan Turek’s costumes, which are the strongest design element in the show.
At the outset the emperor has just died and the question of his successor is in play. His sons Saturninus (Forrest Attaway) and Bassianus (Chris Roady) each lay claim to the throne, but the people’s choice is Titus Andronicus (Robbins), a conquering general who has just returned from a 10-year campaign against the Goths with prisoners in tow.
The war-weary Titus has lost 21 sons in his war against the Goths and he declines the honor, deferring to Saturninus, the late emperor’s eldest.
Conflict erupts into violence almost immediately. First, Titus orders the dismemberment of the first-born son of his prisoner, Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Melinda McCrary), to satisfy the spirits of his slain offspring.
Then Saturninus declares that he would take Titus’s teenage daughter Lavinia (Daria LeGrand) as his bride. Despite Lavinia’s protests, Titus agrees, even though she is betrothed to Bassianus, who has prior claim under Roman law. The issue puts Titus in direct conflict with his surviving sons.
At that point Saturninus turns on a dime and announces that he will instead marry Tamora, elevating her instantly from conquered barbarian to empress. These developments in the first few minutes of the play set the stage for all that follows: An inexorable cycle of revenge.
Before all is said and done, Lavinia will be raped and have her tongue cut out and hands cut off, Bassianus will be murdered and thrown into a pit, Titus will sacrifice one of his own hands and Tamora’s sons (Matt Weiss and Kyle Dyck) will have their throats cut and their remains baked into a pie. And that’s just a partial list.
Hatley has essentially divided the play into halves, each with a distinct tone. The first act recalls “Lear” with its cavalcade of catastrophes triggered by Titus’s vanity and warped sense of honor, while Act II segues into the darkest of dark comedy after Titus “snaps” and takes his revenge against Tamora and her sons.
Robbins is thoroughly in command, offering a striking portrait of a man whose world crumbles beneath his feet. The loopy version of Titus in the second act demonstrates the actor’s gift for comedy, even as the character proceeds with his lethal plans.
McCrary, another experienced Shakespearean actor, is evenly matched with Robbins. Her enjoyment of revenge is palpable and McCrary’s nuanced playing of the penultimate scene at Titus’s “dinner party” is a thing of grotesque beauty.
As Saturninus, the talented Attaway seems a little uncomfortable with the Bard’s language but he has fun with the performance, turning it into a memorable portrait of a buffoon with hilarious anachronistic touches. Weiss and Dyck play Tamora’s sons the only way they can sensibly be played — as giggling psychopaths, which makes their grisly demise all the more satisfying.
The understated Paul Burns brings quiet dignity to the role of Marcus, Titus’s brother. As Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s calmly homicidal, scheming lover, Rufus Burns is an imposing presence, although his handling of the language too often lacks clarity. Roady as Bassianus and Taylor St. John as Lucius Andronicus are unfussy and workmanlike.
Perhaps the show’s most impressive performance comes from 16-year-old Daria LeGrand, who brings remarkable intensity to Lavinia, especially after the mutilation that robs her of speech. Lavinia is the play’s only compassionately drawn character, and LeGrand’s vivid, heartbreaking performance brings her to life.
Music is an important part of the show, with composer Eryn Bates Preston leading a tight band in gospel and blues-favored tunes set to Shakespeare’s language. Heavy reverb and an iffy sound system render most of the lyrics unintelligible, although if you listen closely you can catch recognizable snippets from the Bard’s sonnets. Bates and accordionist Kate O’Neill (who is also acts in the show) occasionally serve as emcees and narrators. And a choreographed call-and-response number involving the whole cast opens the second act memorably.