Seattle Shakespeare Company’s “Titus Andronicus” explores audiences’ complicated relationship with violence as entertainment, writes critic Dusty Somers, but some of the effort seems bloodless.
“Titus Andronicus” is generally considered to be the Bard’s goriest play, and Seattle Shakespeare’s production of the revenge tale gleefully embraces its brutality with hacked-off appendages, bowls full of entrails and enough spurting blood to make front-row patrons wish a splash guard had been installed.
But for every clever invention in director David Quicksall’s production, like a trio of preshow movie-trailer parodies starring a who’s who of local talent, there’s at least one that feels tired or misplaced (please, no more selfies in noncontemporary works).
Quicksall’s “Titus” is deeply indebted to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse,” an homage to exploitation films starring violence that’s simultaneously appalling and amusing. Combining those tones is a tricky proposition though, and Seattle Shakespeare’s staging doesn’t quite pull it off, offering a jumble of moments that jackknife from intensely unsettling to broadly comic.
By William Shakespeare. Through Feb. 7, Center Theatre, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $27-$50 (206-733-8222 or seattleshakespeare.org).
For instance, when Roman general Titus (Andrew McGinn) determines to sever his own hand to ensure the safety of his sons, a jaunty tune underscores the indecision between chainsaw, machete and rusty garden shears, and the deed has all the weight of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
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On the other hand, when the aftermath of the rape and torture of Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Angelica Duncan) is revealed, the action pauses to linger extensively on her bloodied, shellshocked visage, and the audience is forced to acknowledge the truly disturbing sight.
Uncomfortable moments like this demonstrate the show’s willingness to explore audiences’ complicated relationship with violence as entertainment, but an increasingly irreverent second act mostly abandons that approach.
As the vengeance-fueled Titus, McGinn’s performance traces a fascinating path from proper Shakespearean solemnity to self-aware clowning, the encroaching madness having transformed his character from a powerful general to a prankish jester.
As his rival, Rachel Glass’ Goth-queen-turned-Roman-empress Tamora mostly keeps up, and she embraces the absurdity as her climactic attempt to deceive Titus is staged like a discarded idea for the hell dream sequence in “The Book of Mormon.”
Sylvester Foday Kamara’s intense, casually cruel turn as Tamora’s lover Aaron could belong in a more serious-minded production, but he shines here nevertheless as a man whose duplicity and intuition are underestimated by everyone around him. Duncan’s Lavinia could join him, as her wordless frustration and despair might work even better in a production that doesn’t use her amputated hands as gag fodder.
“Titus Andronicus” may not be the most fertile Shakespeare text for inspection, but simply marveling at its lurid qualities feels like a missed opportunity. The final bows turn the play’s body count into a literal punchline, but for anyone who dislikes thoughtlessly deployed violence, the joke’s on them.