by Lynn on August 1, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the amphitheatre in High Park, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Keira Loughran
Set by Julie Tribe
Costumes by Angela Thomas
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Sound and composition by Sam Sholdice
Fight Director, Simon Fon
Starring: Shauna Black
Gwenlyn Cumyn
Beau Dixon
Sean Dixon
James Graham
Chala Hunter
Omar Alex Khan
Michael Man
Alexander Plouffe
Amy Rutherford
Jan Alexandra Smith
Emilio Vieira

A stylized production of one of Shakepeare’s goriest plays.

The Story. Titus Andronicus is a play about the affects of war on the victors and the vanquished, revenge and violence. Titus Andronicus comes back from battle. He has Tamora Queen of the Goths and her sons as captives. As was the custom one of the captives has to be sacrificed as thanks to the gods for bringing the captors safely home. Titus chooses one of Tamora’s sons, in spite of her pleading.

She plots with her remaining sons to get even. The sons rape Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, then cut out her tongue so she can’t say who did this, and for good measure they cut off her hands so she can’t write their names. They also kill her husband. Nasty.

While Tamora has married Saturninus, the emperor—he knows a seductive captive when he sees one—Tamora has been having it off with Aaron, another warrior. She’s pregnant by him and because Aaron is black, the resultant child, a boy, is in a precarious position. Aaron begs for his son’s life. It’s granted.

And so it goes back and forth with mutilations, killings, revenges, and a touch of unwitting cannibalism. Titus kills Tamora’s sons, hangs them upside down so their blood drips into bowls beneath. He then cuts them up to make a pie (or in this case smaller pies) which he serves to an unsuspecting Tamora. He has invited her over for a nosh on the pretext of making nice, as if all is forgiven. Little does she know. And while we aren’t sure he said, “Keep your forks, there’s pie” I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

The Production. Director Keira Loughran has envisioned this as a formal Japanese warrior concept. Angela Thomas’s costumes are maroon and black. Men wear flowing pantaloon-line pants with form fitting tops. There is a ceremony when character fights character with ceremonial sticks. There is a rhythm when the sticks are banged on the stage. It’s an interesting percussive music.

There is much pomp when Titus comes home. Lavinia greets him wearing a white crinoline-like dress with the hem above the knee, with a long white cape behind her. She also wears white boots that make her look like a cheerleader. Or perhaps I’m just being perverse.

There is also a bit of politicking as to who will be the next emperor. Because Titus has been so victorious in battle it’s thought he would be crowned. But Titus is a smart man. Two brothers vie for the job: Saturninus, a bit of a loose canon, and Bassianus. Titus suggests Saturninus be emperor.

While Saturninus wants Lavinia for his bride and she, dutiful woman that she is agrees, Bassianus puts up a fuss. Bassianus and Lavinia are in love and have promised to be true to the other. Saturninus agrees when he spies the sultry Tamora and takes her as his bride. These folks operate on hair trigger emotions.

Any peace is short lived. Revenge killings begin almost immediately. The gore of the killings is suggested. A person is stabbed and a red shock of material is thrown out by the killer and floats in the air to suggest the blood. When Lavinia is ravaged she enters with red streaks in her white dress. Red ribbons flow down from black coverings on her arms where her hands once were. When she is asked to explain what happened, she opens her mouth and another red ribbon drops down, suspended from her mouth, suggesting the blood from her missing tongue.

Japanese theatre is formal and these techniques of depicting blood like this have been used for centuries. I appreciate the concept and how effective it is to convey the violence, but be at a remove at the same time because the blood is suggested by ribbons. That does not distance us from the emotions of the scenes though. The imagination is a powerful thing.

As much as I like the concept and the execution of it, at times I think the blocking is a bit clunky. Characters up stage speak to the backs of characters downstage. Or the downstage character turns awkwardly upstage to face the person talking. The focus of some scenes is muddy with action happening on multiple levels of the stage.

The quality of the acting is mixed. As Titus Andronicus, Sean Dixon has a commanding voice and has bearing, but I found him strangely unengaged. I can understand the stoical warrior, but Dixon’s performance often is at odds with the emotion of the part. By contrast his sister Marcus, (a switch in gender from the play) played by Jan Alexandra Smith, is full of passion, emotion and nuance. As Aaron, Beau Dixon is having a scenery chewing good time playing the villain. As is Shauna Black as Tamora, a formidable villainess.

I can appreciate that the acting has to be broad in such a large space—the actors are miked to be heard—but a little nuance and subtlety is not a bad thing.

As always, the audience is rapt and that includes young kids who really get into it.

Comment. I love how Shakespeare can get in the heads of such characters and make them live and breathe. Over all Keira Loughran’s vision creates that violent world.

Canadian Stage Company presents:

Opened: July 3, 2014
Closes: August 31. 2014
Cast: 12; 7 men, 5 women
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

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