A headline catches your eye. Or maybe its America's Most Wanted and suddenly you are immersed in the graphic details of an unspeakable crime. It could be the Middle East, Europe, or some small town in America. You close the newspaper or change the channel, feeling sickened and vulnerable.
This, in a nutshell, is the mood pervading the Shakespeare Theatre Company's new production of Titus Andronicus. One atrocity after another plays out on stage and the aftershocks are disturbingly familiar. What happens in this play is happening everywhere, with perhaps even less rhyme or reason than in Shakespeare's day. Or, for that matter, ancient Rome.
Murder, revenge and rape: Ryan Farley, Valerie Leonard and David L. Townsend
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)
And yet director Gale Edwards succeeds mightily in balancing this parade of destruction with the emotional journeys Shakespeare offers of its victims and, to some extent, its perpetrators. She has kept it free of exploitation and excessive prurience and still made it relevant. We cannot easily imagine a state-sanctioned eye-for-an-eye honor system, but we can all too well imagine the devastation brought upon families by wanton violence.
Thus we meet Titus, the Roman general who sets in motion a violent cascade of events when he orders the death of a captured Goth as a matter of military honor. The Goths wreak their revenge on Titus' family until Titus, a broken man, orchestrates a final act that makes Hannibal Lecter look like small potatoes.
What transcends the carnage (and there is plenty, be warned) is the dramatic power in Titus' rage against his aging self, his flirtation with madness as he sees his children hideously harmed, and his graceless but determined will to avenge. We share this anatomy of grief -- we think of it when we read the newspaper accounts, and we feel it here with Titus.
As Titus, Sam Tsoutsouvas is convincing as a man driven wild with grief and his failure to protect his own. He speaks with timeless sadness when he searches the night sky and finds no answer from his gods. And Tsoutsouvas commands the language of the play masterfully, sharing with us its beauty but never compromising on the emotional integrity. His devotion to Shakespeare's magic carries the play.
Colleen Delany as Titus' daughter, Lavinia, though unfocused at first, delivers a tremendous performance once she falls victim to the Goths. With unfailing honesty she shows us a human brimming with despair, utterly trapped in the unthinkable. Her return through the woods after the Goths have attacked her is extremely powerful theater -- and not least due to the understated use of Peter England's stark sets.
Mention must also be made of Peter Macon as Aaron, the Goth queen's servant and lover. Macon is a stunning stage presence and he has the interesting ability to inhabit Aaron fully and yet speak to the audience with his eyes. He is the character who tells us most about the genesis of his own evil and Macon delivers many riveting moments.
To May 20
The Shakespeare Theatre
450 7th St. NW
Chris Genebach is also a stand-out in his small but fiercely rendered role as Titus' only surviving son, Lucius.
Finally, though Edwards places this Titus in some mildly contemporary world, it remains firmly about the drama and not the ''concept.'' There is piped in music which blares in filmic interludes (at times inviting comparisons to the excellent HBO series Rome) but thanks to the tight pacing and strong performances, in this case it did not overwhelm the live players. This Titus is high on action with enough superb displays of choreography and well-rehearsed stage-craft to keep even the YouTube crowd rapt.
And so this early play of Shakespeare's remains a study in the human capacity to show no mercy and the wave of hopelessness it brings us all. Not a joyful evening with the Bard, but a meaningful one.