The (Most Lamentable Tragedie of) “Titus Andronicus” indeed has a most lamentable history. While it was a hit when it was first produced, as time wore on it became one of Shakespeare’s most denigrated works, and would stay so until the latter half of the 20th Century.
It was revived famously by the heralded Peter Brooke in 1955. However, even Mr. Brooke couldn’t escape criticism as the play itself is, to understate it, is uneven in tone at best.
In 1948 John Dover Wilson, a professor at Cambridge, said that the play ”seems to jolt and bump along like some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses from an Elizabethan scaffold, and driven by an executioner from Bedlam dressed in cap and bells." So poor Mr. Shakespeare receives low marks for this his, historically acknowledged, first attempt at tragedy.
It seems harsh and probably a little blasphemous to lambast the Bard so thoroughly, but the collection of gruesome revenge scenarios that make up this plot truly do warrant it. So, why produce this piece? Possibly because it is a warning against the cycle of revenge. Perhaps to comment on our society's thirst for violence. Whatever the reason, you must be clear.
Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s production of the play sadly did not clear up any of these issues. I had high hopes upon entering the theatre, seeing the sparse and cartoon-like set that resembled the artwork in Disney’s “Hercules.“ Upon seeing the cartoony clouds hung above the stage and cartoony columns flanking the stage left entrance I thought, “Ah, ha, we are in for slapstick violence a la Tom & Jerry!” Alas, this was not to be. While there were a few performances that seemed to be at the level of melo-drama, which would have worked well if everyone had been at that level, others were playing the action straight.
The violence was also uneven. When dismemberment took place, the effects were “realistic” body parts covered in blood. Then, when two doves were shot down, the designer represented them with cut-out cartooned birds replete with X's where there eyes should be. The costumes too were undecided, some seemed realistic renderings of Roman garb and others over the top exaggerations.
Amidst all this murkiness shone some lights. Lucius Andronicus (Maroon Stranger) was able to articulate the language in a way that held some of the disparate parts together. I could truly hear her character's intentions and sat up whenever she was onstage. Likewise, Demetrius/Quitus (Ian Stewart Riley) and Chiron/Marius (Cole B. Norcio) had a grip on the language that dared to split the difference between parody and poetry.
The hero of the evening was Jahnavi Aithal as Bassianus/Alarbus/Messenger/Clown/Nurse/Goth. Yep, six parts. Huzzah to Aithal for crafting six separate humans. This is a daunting task for the most seasoned actor and Aithal was successful overall. Most of her characterizations fell within appropriate emotional brackets and worked well. The Clown, however, seemed to fit the tone of the cartoon scenery, but didn’t mesh with the gruesome circumstances the character is involved in. This problem may have been caused by guidance from the director and not Aithal’s choice.
I disagree with the poet T.S. Eliot that “Titus Adronicus” is "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” I do believe that due to the play's inherent issues, without a vice-like grip on a clear, contemporary concept, there probably isn’t any reason ever to rouse “Titus” from his historic slumber.