At a glance, Brooklyn outfit Danse Macabre Theatrics’ production of Titus Andronicus has a lot in common with another Shakespeare production that just went down in New York: both productions have stages that are bare save television screens, feature technical elements in plain view of the audience, and tout high concepts that involve viewing the play through a modern political context.
But it soon becomes apparent where these two productions diverge: Peter Sellars’ high profile, star-studded Othello was a well-documented disaster. This Titus, on the other hand, is really, really good.
Seemingly despite themselves, DMT actually handles the text better than Sellars did. Seems this production is part of the ongoing festival, “Grudge Match: DMT vs. Shakespeare,” wherein “nearly all of the Bard's great works will be ruthlessly mutilated, bent, battered, cut to ribbons and otherwise manhandled.” They promise that “theater purists will wail, Shakespeare scholars will faint, literature hounds will blanch in horror as the indie theater impresario mercilessly bodyslams the venerated playwright's finest and most beloved works with no regard whatsoever for the rules of etiquette, theater, or fair play!”
Director Frank Cwiklik—also the show’s designer and producer—has assembled a group of actors clearly comfortable with classical text. The risks he takes, even in the few spots where they fail, are justified and fully developed in this artistic frame, while still managing not to mangle the play as written. If “ruthlessly mutilating” means making bold, exciting, relevant, well thought out choices with the text, then more Shakespeare productions should be so mutilated.
Cwiklik’s boldest choice is his decision to cast a woman in the titular role. Where this succeeds, it succeeds in spades, particularly in the wake of the 2008 presidential election. The sagas of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton demonstrated, among many things, that female politicians (more than their male counterparts) are judged by and defined in reference to their families. The failings of their children are viewed as their own, and when their office-holding husbands are unfaithful, they are expected to tough it out with calm and unwavering love. What’s more, female professionals in any arena are often viewed as walking a tightrope between their careers and their family lives—a dilemma men rarely encounter. As such, when this Titus Andronicus—a small blonde woman with cunning political acumen and who enjoys hunting with her party-hearty sons—turns down the Imperial seat, we see a female politician taking the back seat to male power and accepting an advisory position instead. When she berates her sons or pleads their case, we see a woman that is all too aware that she will be judged by her children’s choices. When her children are killed, raped and mutilated, her emotions are all the more poignant. And by changing the characters of Young Lucius and Martius to Lucia (Lydia Blaisdell) and Marta (Kristin Woodburn), there’s a certain camaraderie that emerges in their pulling together over Lavinia’s plight and ultimately in the revenge that follows.
This cross-gendered casting is less successful when the performance favors the single-mother aspect over the hardened career military-woman and borders dangerously on Lifetime melodrama. Casting Titus as a woman should not demand attempts to “feminize” the role. Kymberly Tuttle shows herself capable of the straight-backed, single-minded, calculating gravitas the role requires. She overcomes her physical stature and towers above the play as a force to be reckoned with. But there are scenes where this does not show up and should. When swearing revenge, for example, and enacting plans, Titus—whether played by a woman or man—should not be less terrifying and imposing than Tamora. The “black ill-favor’d fly” speech is not quirky and cute but unhinged. Shooting arrows into Saturninus’ palace is not merely a prank to be laughed at (they aren’t egging a curmudgeonly neighbor’s front porch), but a calculated scare tactic against the man who killed Titus’ sons and betrayed his trust. Titus is the general that defeated the Goths in a ruthless campaign and who led twenty willing sons to their glorious deaths in battle. Whether played by a man or a woman, the role seems to call for a certain warrior quality Tuttle would do well to fill her entire performance with. Even (especially?) if Titus is female, Titus must still be Titus.
A lot of this could easily be fixed by eliminating an unfortunate music cue that may serve to inform the audience’s perception. It’s a bit of heartwarming piano music that evokes afterschool specials and seems out of place. It plays when Titus is presented with Lavinia’s mutilation, and later when Titus is presented with the heads of her children. There were chuckles.
These complaints are only so irksome, however, because they are blemishes on an otherwise phenomenal Shakespeare experience. The Brick’s intimate, unique space is filled with tonal music as soon as the house opens, and the television screens spaced throughout the stage display the play’s title. The wait for curtain is broken up occasionally by clever campaign commercials: “Bassanius for Emperor” and “Saturninus for Emperor.” Television screens are used to evoke setting and to fill in transitions. Simply by being televisions, they serve to underpin the modern political setting without the all-too-often multimedia overkill. Cwiklik's lighting design is dramatic and, when not working to establish setting, is wonderfully impressionistic. Sound—particularly music—plays a large part in this production, is usually effective, and no doubt the levels and cues will be adjusted as the run continues so that the actors will never be drowned out. Costumes are mostly modern; from Saturninus’ smart suit to Demetrius and Chiron’s Hot Topic chic, they embody the characters well.
The cast is great through and through. Much has already been said about the characters whose genders have been reassigned, but I’ll reiterate: where this choice works, it works wonders. Kristin Woodburn loses none of the officiousness of Martius while still exploring the role as a woman—the scene where Martius, here called Marta, discovers Lavinia (played engrossingly by Ann Breitbach) in the forest is heartbreaking for the simplicity of its staging. In the dim light, with Lavinia’s crumpled body faced away from the audience, Woodburn is able to paint such a rich picture through her use of the language that the audience is more affected by the restraint shown in the staging than they would if they were presented with the grisly sight. Adam Samtur and Craig Kelton Petersons’ Demetrius and Chiron are played as two jacked up heavy metal reprobates, which is not to say they feel cliché or boring. To the contrary, the characters are so lively and, at times, horrifying amidst so much pomp and circumstance that they’re a refreshing presence on stage. What’s more, the actors are able to find the nuance and humanity in their characters. This Demetrius and Chiron are, at heart, two hyperactive children that never grew up. We’re glad to see Titus get her revenge, but we’re also made aware of just how insanely gruesome her method is.
Fred Backus (Saturninus) and Ken Simon (Bassanius) play the parts of competing politicians very well, vacillating between the bond they share as brothers and their competition with one another as contenders for the throne. Backus especially captures the struggling, scheming climber well, a man who knows all the right hands to shake and when to cover his tracks. He is wonderfully complemented by Brianna Tyson’s Tamora, who never fails to own the stage.
Greg Engebrecht’s Lucius emerges after intermission as a real presence. In his meeting with the Goths, and his wrath and subsequent accord with Aaron, the character doesn’t talk much, but when he does it’s always worth an ear. It’s difficult to make an audience believe, so late in the play, that a character who remains nothing but quietly resolute for so much of the play could be worthy of the throne, but Engebrecht pulls it off.
Last but not least is Sean Phillips’ Aaron. From his first speech spoken in near darkness, to his glorious exit, full of joy at all the evil he’s done, Phillips is a jaw-dropping joy to watch and is worth the price of admission alone. I hope to see him tackle other roles in the future.
I fear this review might be DMT’s worst nightmare. This company, which presents itself as irreverent and offensive to theatrical sensibilities, might actually be one of the more exciting collections of performers of Shakespeare’s work that New York City has to offer. I hope they don’t take offense if I suggest they demand respect and admiration for so successfully tackling such an easily mangled play in their intimate, out of the way Williamsburg space. And I apologize if I highly recommend this production, even to “theatre purists…Shakespeare scholars…[and] literature hounds.” They may not like it, but these purists, scholars and hounds may learn something.
Titus Andronicus runs October 9 – October 24 at The Brick, 575 Metropolitan Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn 11211. Information can be found at http://www.dm-theatrics.com/.