Much as I would like to report that See ‘Em on Stage’s “Titus Andronicus” is an exploration of a civilization without a governing moral compass or an investigation into our knotty obsession with violence as amusement, that would miss the point of director Christopher Bentivegna’s lusty production.
Bentivegna aims to push — if not pound — the audience’s responsive buttons by rivaling the gore and bloodshed of such movie-makers as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.
As in all revenge dramas, from Aeschylus’ “The Oresteia” on down, violence begets violence and blood will have blood.
After returning triumphantly to Rome, war-weary General Titus Andronicus (Ron Gural) is offered the imperial crown, which he declines, throwing his influence behind the previous emperor’s eldest son Saturninus (Clint Johnson), but not before, in retribution for his losses, he sacrifices the eldest son of Tamora (Trina Beck), the conquered queen of the Goths.
Titus also offers Saturninus his only daughter Lavinia (Kali Russell), but Lavinia renounces the newly crowned emperor in favor of his brother, Bassianus (Eli Timm).
Surprisingly, the easily enchanted Saturninus, who has a penchant for sudden shouting, chooses the dangerously voluptuous Tamora as his empress and sets free her two devilish sons Chiron (Nathaniel Twarog) and Demetrius (Kyle Woods) as well as her psychopathic lover Aaron the Moor (Monica Harris).
Consumed with revenge, Tamora vows bloody havoc on Titus’ entire family.
Spurred on by Aaron, Tamora’s skin-headed doppelganger sons rape and mutilate Lavinia, murder her husband and frame her brother for the crime, resulting in his gruesome execution.
Flushed with grief, and presumably insane, Titus achieves cannibalistic retribution in a dinner scene that bursts into a bacchanal of fevered carnage.
The sheer brutality of “Titus Andronicus” terrifies most producers, but Bentivegna and his fearless crew aren’t known for playing it safe, and they go at it full-bore without hiding behind any glib B-movie self-mockery.
The ghastly acts of violence, such as the disembodiment of Titus’ hand and the stabbing death of Bassianus, designed by Alexander Osborn, are amazingly realistic — although some of the second act gore elicited laughter.
All of the actors give exuberant if unruly performances. Sections of the action disappoint due to some clumsy blocking and prosaic line readings.
Even in a production stressing violence, the vocal necessities of Shakespeare’s blank verse don’t disappear. There is plenty of the expected emoting, screaming and groaning, and everyone’s performance — save Gural's — would benefit from a little restraint.
Like many American actors, this ensemble relishes the passion of emotional release but sometimes sacrifices the taut, tantalizing building of tension.
While few local directors match Bentivegna’s risky vision and theatrical passion, stage composition has yet to prove his strong point. One could only wish for the sharpness, control and precision of the curtain call displayed in all the staging.
Gural, a seasoned, intelligent actor — perhaps better suited for Marcus (Mary Pauley), Titus’ remarkably sane brother — lacks the military bearing of a Roman general. But unlike his unbridled castmates, he thankfully doesn’t plumb the depths of despair and outrage.
Gural's understated performance suffers because it is out of sync with the boisterous, highly externalized performances of his peers.
Beck, like Gural, handles the verse more effectively than most, and her vicious temptress is marred only by moments of shrill.
Harris exudes a terrifying maliciousness as the unrepentant and consummately evil Aaron, but hits her peak early on, leaving little room to grow.
Johnson with his shimmering gold jacket and “Peaky Blinders” haircut has great fun as the prissy Saturninus, although at times he seems to be acting in a different play.
Bentivegna’s valiant company might have been better off jettisoning Shakespeare altogether by reinventing the tale of Titus on their own and to their own liking and purpose. After all, that’s what Shakespeare himself did.
WHEN: Through Nov. 5
WHERE: Allways Theatre, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
TICKETS: $25 - $30
INFO: seosaproductioncompany.com or (504) 250-6483