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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.
I should have known better.
I was seduced by the idea and, frankly, I hadn't seen a good Titus Andronicus in a long time. After all, it's one of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays. I don't know if you've ever read it or seen it but it's brutal, physically brutal. It's set in Rome after a war with the Goths. The victorious Titus returns with prisoners of war. He's lauded and asked to become the new ruler. He demurs which sets off a series of revenge plots which become increasingly more violent and senseless. At the center is the gang rape of Titus' daughter Lavinia. Yes, a gang rape in Shakespeare. Lavinia then has her tongue and hands cut off so she can't identify the rapists.
Shakespeare folks usually cut one of two ways with Titus Andronicus. Either, 'eh, it's not one of his great plays - whatever' or 'I have to find a way to stage that violence: to unlock the secret of that play!' I tend to fall somewhere in between.
There's a lot to the play that feels like an early draft for ideas that were fleshed out with more refinement in later plays: Othello, Julius Caesar, Henry V. But there's also a part of me that wants to see someone make sense out of all that violence; to find a meaning or a catharsis behind the evil. It's the same part of me that wants us to confront all the senseless gun violence in our own country.
I guess that's all an excuse for what drew me to Titus Andronicus: A Vaudeville at the Stella Adler Lab Theater.
I know, 'A vaudeville about a gang rape, what were you thinking?' I guess I thought- 'hey, that idea's just kooky enough to maybe work.'
Sadly, I was wrong. This Titus is little more than a cheap conceptual idea, pasted on top of Shakespeare serving to obscure rather than reveal the text. Nevermind that the production conflates vaudeville and melodrama, it's greatest weakness is it fails to make sense of the brutality: to answer the essential question "why?"
It's like my great teacher Lew Palter used to say, "I don't care if you set Hamlet on the moon! But if you do, that idea, that metaphor has to be as rich and complicated as the original play. Otherwise, what's the point?"
That's the pitfall with 'concept' productions: a director becomes seduced by an idea of the play; usually a take that 'solves' some aspect for them and then, well they can't see the forest for their tree. What the audience is left with is a clever idea - but that's not a play.
The other challenge is this production is a product of an acting school. These actors are all current and former Stella Adler Academy students. Despite the press release and the tickets sold at the door, I feel a bit guilty reviewing what should be a class project.
Titus Andronicus: A Vaudeville plays at the Stella Adler Lab Theater in Hollywood through November 17.
This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.
Banner image: Julio J Vargas