By William Shakespeare
Through Aug. 5
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
36 Madison Ave., Madison
By GWEN OREL
Or, “Game of Thrones, without the jump cuts and dragons.”
At least, that’s how director Brian B. Crowe seems to have approached Shakespeare’s early revenge tragedy. The concept is not a bad idea: more-or-less noble Roman (fictional) Titus Andronicus (Bruce Cromer) suffers appallingly for trusting people to behave with honor. When he comes back from conquering the Goths, he declines the people’s choice of him to succeed the late emperor.
Instead, he chooses the emperor’s son: the wrong one, it turns out. Saturninus (Benjamin Eakeley) agrees to marry Andronicus’ daughter Lavinia (Fiona Robberson), but she is promised to Saturninus’ brother Bassianus (Oliver Archibald).
The play is not for everyone, and Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) posts a warning that it is not for young people. Teens might love it, though.
This is a play that includes hands and tongues being chopped off. This is a play where a girl is gang-raped and mutilated. This is a play where a father kills two of his children.
A MIXED BAG
But revenge tragedy was on the wane when Shakespeare began doing it, and “Titus” is a hybrid. You can see elements of “King Lear,” of “Hamlet,” of “Macbeth” here. A prideful father. Feints at madness. A power-hungry queen.
But where the later tragedies reveal so much about the human spirit, “Titus” drowns in blood. People are evil just because they are.
Saturninus marries the Goth queen Tamora (Vanessa Morosco), and she and her secret lover, the Moor Aaron (Chris White) plot revenge against Titus and his family. It gets extreme.
Her evil sons, played with biker-gone-evil swagger by Torsten Johnson and Quentin McCuiston, wreak havoc. But Shakespeare also inserts poetry and soliloquies about ideals. Andronicus’ brother Marcus (Robert Cuccioli) delivers some; his son Lucius (Montclair’s Clark Carmichael), sent abroad to return with an army (bizarrely, the very Goth army Andronicus had conquered) delivers others.
That hybrid clearly appeals to director Brian B. Crowe, and has appealed to such directors as Julie Taymor, whose memorable 1999 film of the play starred Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange.
But the poetry slows down the shock. The blood washes over the poetry.
In the end, the play just feels long, despite Crowe’s efforts and those of a talented cast, despite the really good sound by Karin Graybash that add atmosphere.
Certainly, Crowe keeps things moving: asides done in spotlights are provocative. But sometimes he seems to have directed the actors to play against the text. Why, for example, does Aaron the Moor taunt his captors so joyfully, when they come upon him with his baby? White has a wonderful voice and presence throughout, but his actions in this scene don’t make sense: he cares about the child. And contemporary audiences may feel uncomfortable about the number of lines that refer back to his skin color.
Similarly, evil queen Tamora’s motivation for her horrific schemes, that is, having had one son killed by Andronicus, seems trivial in this violent world. So ultimately she just seems like a psychopath. That makes for good slasher stuff, but not such good revelation-of-the-human-character Shakespearean stuff. Morosco (so good in STNJ’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” ) nicely uses robotic, disjointed motions that become sinewy to show her growth from foreigner to insider. Her evil queen is compelling. But Tamora is no Lady Macbeth. Nor Cersei.
Cromer’s Andronicus is so full of energy that he’s ultimately wearying, especially when he seems mad, or feigns that he is. Millburn student AJ DeAugustine, as Young Lucius, shows maturity and nuance in his small role. Robberson is haunting as the haunted Lavinia. But Cuccioli’s Marcus and Carmichael’s Lucius, with their grave delivery of the noble speeches, seem to come from other plays.
It’s true that the play does have something to say about power: that it shouldn’t be given lightly. But this is no “Julius Caesar” critique of power and rebellion. If anything, the play seems to suggest that having the right monarch is really all that matters.
Dick Block’s set includes a huge half-buried helmet, a frame around the proscenium with toothy spikes, and huge runic swords. It evokes both “Planet of the Apes” and “Game of Thrones.” We know we’re in a not-quite-real place immediately.
But there are no dragons — and no magic — here.