Most theater company directors shy away from staging William Shakespeare’s “The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus,” the overly bloody and horridly written tale of a Roman General caught in a revenge cycle with a war-hungry queen. However, Andy Batt isn’t most directors.
Known to most in Columbus as the head director of MadLab Theatre, which typically produces only new works bent toward the controversial, Batt’s side venture, Shepherd Productions, is taking a step in the other direction by staging one “little-produced and unheralded classic” a year. (Click here to donate to the new troupe’s Kickstarter campaign.)
Though a completely separate company, Batt’s decision to stage “Titus” as Shepherd’s premiere is definitely MadLab-esque. If MadLab were ever to take on an unadulterated Shakespeare production, the controversial and oft-loathed “Titus” would be the perfect choice.
Even Shakespeare fanatics are known to run in the opposite direction when they see the words “Titus Anronicus” and critics have spent centuries deriding the classic as one of the bard’s worst. However modern renderings of the bloody tale over the last few decades (most notably Julie Taymor’s 1999 film “Titus” starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange) have introduced the revenge tragedy to a new and more appreciative audience, an audience that has grown up on the ultra violence of video games and “The Saw” franchise.
The story follows the demise of theRoman Empire, circa. 3 A.D., through the tragic tale of Roman General Titus Andronicus. After a slew of war victories Titus returns home to a new and inept emperor who marries the queen of the nation he’s just defeated. An extremely bloody cycle of revenge ensues between Queen Tamora and Titus as they try to “one-up” the wrongs done them by the other. Once the dust settles, the play ends with a body count that’s more than twice that of “Hamlet.”
Kate Tull takes on the daunting task of adapting the script specifically for Shepherd, stripping the cast down from 30 to 16 and trimming many of the play’s lengthy monologues. However all the adapting in the world couldn’t make this play’s scripting bearable, but the combination of Tull’s efforts and Batt’s staging makes for a more than entertaining evening at theater.
Batt predictably chooses MadLab All-Star Jim Azelvandre to herald Shepherd’s maiden voyage. A Shakespeare vet, Azelvandre easily slips into the vile benign that is Titus. He adds interesting nuance to the general, who spends much of the play draped in the insanity brought by vengeance.
When filling out the rest of the cast, however, Batt, spread his wings and pulled in actors from all corners ofColumbus’ theatre scene. It was refreshing to see so many new faces on the MadLab stage. Courtney Deuser also wore vengeance well as Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Deuser revels in the queen’s evil character, wrought by the death of her eldest son at the hands of Titus. Tamora’s slave/lover Aaron (Franklin Grace) is famously the most loathsome of the cast. Grace kept a gleeful smirk throughout that aptly accented Aaron’s true passion for evildoing.
The true casualties of the two-act, two-hour Titus-Tamora showdown are the pair’s offspring, who end up being some of this cast’s strongest players. Paul Moon adds emotional depth to Titus’ eldest, Lucius, who, even after watching Titus kill his brother and his sister, ends up following in his father’s murderous footsteps. David Tull and Jeff Potts are nearly too convincing as Demetrius and Chiron, Tamora’s sons and creatures of pure hateful lust. Their ravishing and brutal mutilation of Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Erin Fisher) kept the audience grimacing in utter horror.
Fisher nearly steals the show as the tortured Lavinia. Her unfailing commitment to the character’s suffering was truly captivating. There’s a particularly effecting scene when Fisher is convulsing about after her bloody encounter with Tamora’s sons. The brutes have dismembers her hands and cut out her tongue to keep her from revealing what they’ve done. In a great special effects moment, blood spurts from her mouth, forcing a gasp from more than a few in the audience. Fisher effortlessly portrays each of Lavinia’s emotions clearly without the use of her hands or speech.
Travis Horseman adds equal parts camp and rage to clueless Saturninus, Emperor of Rome, ultimately a pawn in the execution of Tamora’s wrath. And kudos to Batt for snagging local theater icon John Feather for the role of Marcus, Titus’ much wiser older brother. Feather, of course, offers a seamless performance, as if he’d been born speaking Shakespeare’s Elizabethan verbiage.
Set and lighting designer Doug Northeim takes a minimalist, yet high-impact approach, adding only a Roman Colonial-style staircase and pillars that the actors moved about, and two LED screens that flash art deco paintings of the actors’ period surroundings. The projections also feature large red slashes and slasher sound effects whenever someone is killed (which is often). His lighting scheme is also equally compelling, juxtaposing hues of stark red and cool blue, while Jennifer Feather Youngblood’s ancient Roman costumes add necessary authenticity and legitimacy to the production.
Shepherd’s inaugural showcase is definitely worth the price of the ticket, but audience members of the American Idol generation might refer to it as a “poor song choice, with brilliant delivery.”
Check out Shepherd’s “Titus Andronicus” below:
“The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus” by Shepherd Productions runs through September 17 at MadLab Theatre (227 N. Third Street,Columbus). Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students/seniors. Click here to purchase tickets online, or call 614-221-5418. For more information visit www.shepherd-productions.com.