- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

Hats off to the Shakespeare Theatre Company for having the courage to mount a new production of William Shakespeare’s always-controversial “Titus Andronicus.” Kudos as well to director Gale Edwards and her highly skilled troupe of actors, who take the drama seriously, transforming its two-dimensional roles into surprisingly complex character studies.

Traditionally demeaned as Shakespeare’s worst play and very possibly not entirely written by the Bard, “Titus” is a bloody-minded curiosity. Ironically, though, it also is a drama that addresses our own troubled times.

As an actor-playwright, Shakespeare must have observed the wild popularity of Thomas Kyd’s hyperkinetic revenge drama “The Spanish Tragedy.” The mad-slasher epics of their day, revenge tragedies essentially were audience-pleasing, over-the-top gore fests. It’s certainly plausible that Shakespeare decided to adapt this successful formula for this, his first tragedy, much as TV’s original “Law & Order” formula is retooled to spawn popular spinoffs.

Revenge tragedies work like a machine. An early trigger, often some petty act of dishonor, sets off a chain reaction of bloody violence that terminates most of the players by the final curtain. As in the “Halloween” films, the audience knows this will happen. What they don’t know is precisely how.

Victorious in battle against the Goths, Roman general Titus orders the eldest son of his enemy, Queen Tamora, sliced and diced to avenge the death of many of his sons. Then, declining to be crowned emperor out of misplaced loyalty, he backs Saturninus, the amoral son of the recently deceased ruler. His reward: the slaughter of all but one of his remaining sons and the hideous rape and mutilation of his only daughter, Lavinia, by Tamora’s evil sons.

Titus eventually gets back at his foes, and limbs fly amid buckets of gore — some of which finds its way into a tasty meat pie at the most unpleasant dinner party you’ll ever attend. This is not an evening for the squeamish.

As Titus, Sam Tsoutsouvas elevates his character to the level of a King Lear as an old man finally begins to question his notions of honor and chivalry after taking them too far. Alex Podulke also excels as Saturninus, the new emperor who is unfit for the job and proves it every time he speaks. Likewise, Chris Genebach impresses as the warlike Lucius, one of the few survivors.

As the vengeful Tamora, Valerie Leonard drips acid and hypocrisy with every line. As Aaron the Moor, perhaps Shakespeare’s most unrepentant villain, Peter Macon snarls with venomous rage, viscerally propelling the drama toward its over-the-top finale.

Like clones of Alex and the droogs in “A Clockwork Orange,” David L. Townsend and Ryan Farley portray Tamora’s disgusting sons Chiron and Demetrius as punk psychopaths. As the tormented Lavinia, Colleen Delany elicits considerable sympathy as the innocent victim of an inhuman environment.

Is there a point to all the violence in “Titus”? Unfortunately, our own horrendous era validates a re-examination of this neglected play. Jihadis in Baghdad enjoy Titus Day every day, indulging in incessant mass slaughter to correct perceived wrongs. More painfully close to home, we witnessed a grotesque drama earlier this week in Blacksburg, Va., where a heretofore silent psychopath filmed and then enacted his own revenge tragedy in real time on about three-score innocent students and faculty members.

A sword is drawn, a trigger is pulled, the body count mounts, but is anyone better off, more pure, more honorable when the curtain falls? Has anything been resolved? The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “Titus Andronicus” subtly transforms the Bard’s primitive tragedy into an attack on the use of violence as a universal solution. ***

WHAT: Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”

WHEN: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7:30 p.m. except May 20. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. and Wednesday, May 16 at 2 p.m. Through May 20.

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW

TICKETS: $19 to $76.25

PHONE: 202/547-1122

WEB SITE: www.shakespeare theatre.org. MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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