Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Sexton
"Rome is but a wilderness of tigers," says principled Roman general Titus Andronicus (Jay O. Sanders) who, having returned victorious from a battle in which the emperor was killed, renounces the throne and instead names the late ruler's eldest son Saturninus (Jacob Fishel) his successor. Big mistake. Saturninus is one such tiger, and he takes an even more ferocious beast, the just-defeated Goth queen Tamora (Stephanie Roth Haberle) as his bride. When the newlywed royals aren't tearing each other's clothes off—insatiable lust being another symptom of their moral rottenness—they're indulging their most destructive impulses, engendering the incremental acts of revenge that power this Public Lab
production of Titus Andronicus
(through december 18) to spectacular and wickedly engaging heights.
This may be Shakespeare's messiest play, not only for the bloodbath that its staging practically requires—a requirement copiously fulfilled here—but also for its radical shift in tone from the rote exposition of the opening section to the volatile madness of the rest. Happily, director Michael Sexton moves quickly into the latter material. After its rigid first two acts, which proceed like one of the bard's more grave histories, Titus
and its title character go off the deep end, signaling a shift in tone to Tarantino-esque surreally violent farce. But the physical and emotional violence still registers, making for many all-too-lucid, teary moments amidst the gruesome deaths and dismemberments. This production highlights the text's perversely comic violence. Sanders gets laughs when, exiting the stage with one of his two freshly murdered sons' heads in his remaining hand, followed by his hand- and tongue-less daughter Lavinia (the excellent Jennifer Ikeda) carrying her father's hand in her mouth, he casually tells his brother Marcus (Sherman Howard), "Brother, grab a head."
Sanders takes charge after the early awkwardness of military formality, going from utterly devastated, shell-shocked and catatonic, to high-functioning lunacy and covertly conniving. His transformation into a wild and desperate man hellbent on vengeance occurs right after his daughter's rape, behanding and tongue removal. Sanders, seated and staring skyward, mouth agape, exhales for what seems like a solid minute while bending forward, his breath turning to a low, sickly gargling noise. After the third such breath he bursts into laughter. It may be the strangest and most powerful dialogue-less moment on any New York City stage this year. It's symptomatic of what's best about this production and play, their ability to abandon the early acts' military-political pomp and dive headlong into the ugly and insane hysteria of revenge. And though there are a few missteps—like an overly didactic set design with plywood panels that announce themes with pictograms and words like "rape" scrawled in giant letters—this Titus
only gets better as it builds towards its climactic dinner table finale. Go see it on an empty stomach; you may find yourself unsettlingly hungry afterward.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)