Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is a play that revels in the grotesque. It's rife with stabbings, beheadings, rape, revenge and the perversion of the social order. Drowning in all the gore is a thinly sketched lesson on the dangers of blind obedience. The titular character is a soldier whose loyalty to the Emperor of Rome and all he represents runs counter to common sense and self-preservation. Because of that, Titus is a difficult — if not impossible — character to root for. How do you support a man who would rather kill his own son than defend his daughter's right to marry her betrothed?
Normally that's part of the fun of seeing Titus Andronicus: You get inside Titus' head and see the world in an alien light. But St. Louis Shakespeare's current production of the tragedy features a Titus who seems unbothered by the horrible choices he makes and the violence committed against his family. Even worse, the big question that drives the second act — has Titus been driven mad by grief, or is he merely pretending to be bonkers to get close to his enemies? — is never apparent. Instead we get a mildly bothered soldier who kills a lot of people, but overall seems almost sanguine about it all. It's a baffling and unsatisfying misfire for the company, despite much good work from the large cast and the visually pleasing and intricate rotating set by Chuck Winning.
As the story begins, General Titus (Chad Little) returns home from war bearing dead soldiers and captive Goths, including Queen Tamora (Suki Peters) and her children. In her retinue is her secret paramour, Aaron (Darrious Varner), a Moor. Rome is in the middle of a succession crisis, which Titus solves by anointing Saturninus (Roger Erb) as the new emperor. Titus also allows his troops to offer up one of Tamora's sons as a sacrifice to the gods and to balance the scales — he's lost his own sons in this long war.
- RON JAMES
- Queen Tamora (Suki Peters) romances her secret paramour, Aaron (Darrious Varner).
But that decision proves catastrophic, as Tamora and Aaron plot violent revenge on their sworn enemy. Their schemes are made much easier when Saturninus takes Tamora as his empress. She lets her husband in on their plans, and then the floodgates of blood open.
The big problem is that Little barely inhabits the role of Titus. He's laid back about the war, blase about the emperor kerfuffle and seems merely miffed when he slays one of his remaining sons during an argument about Roman law. He's rather stiff when delivering most of his speeches, and he often doesn't seem to register what the other characters say or do; it's more like he's waiting them out so he can recite his next line. It's unclear if this removed performance was a choice made by director Tom Kopp and Little together, or if Little was having an off night. Either way, it has major repercussions for the play.
Much better are Titus' foes, Tamora and Aaron. Peters is a seductive and powerful barbarian queen, one who urges her sons to rape Titus' daughter, Lavinia. Tamora may banter with her husband, but gives herself body and soul to her lover.
Varner plays Aaron as an arch villain who boasts of his intricate plots to the audience, and relishes watching the suffering of one and all. His sly smile and twinkling eyes convey the monstrous charm and towering intellect beneath Aaron's handsome exterior; he's a poisonous spider weaving webs even as he goes to his death.
And then there's Britteny Henry, who rises to the challenge of playing the much-abused Lavinia. Her hands are lopped off and her tongue slashed out — and still she persists. She mutely rages against her enemies and refuses to accept anything but vengeance. At the end, when Titus has finally avenged himself on Tamora, she embraces her father's knife hand and nods hungrily for her own death. It's an astonishing performance, one that is physically eloquent and resolutely beautiful. One can't help but wonder what Britteny Henry would do with the role of Titus.