Sara Clark and Ian Bond as Juliet and Romeo. - Photo: Rich Sofranko
My schedule prevented me from making it to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s opening ofRomeo & Julietback on Oct. 11, and I hadn’t caught up yet with CSC’s annual Halloween-season tarting up of a Shakespearean tragedy to be offered within the run of the mainstage show. This year it’s the rarely produced revenge piece, Titus Andronicus, presented on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings as well as Saturday matinees through Nov. 11, the same day that Romeo & Juliet wraps up. Neither production could be termed “traditional,” although they are sharing the same set, designed by Andrew Hungerford, and both shows are effectively lit by Gregory Bredestege.
Although the two plays are located at the opposite poles of familiarity in the canon of Shakespeare — R&J has a plot that everyone knows, while Titus is almost never staged — they have some elements in common. Both tales are driven by thoughtless acts that fuel an unquenchable desire for revenge. The young lovers’ meet their ends in a tragedy of miscommunication and bad timing; the fictional Roman general, Titus, and those around him find themselves caught up in a horrifying series of events brought on by greed for power and a desire for one-upmanship.
In fact, both plays are the product of a young Shakespeare, not yet 30 years old. They were probably first performed just a year or so apart: Titus was his first tragedy, initially presented in January 1594; R&J made its debut sometime in 1595. Titus is a revenge tragedy, wildly popular plays that were all the rage in the early 1590s. (CSC’s director for Titus, Jeremy Dubin, aptly calls it “a snuff film in blank verse.”). R&J is a paean to impetuous adolescent love, and until things start to go wrong it’s as much a sweet comedy as it is a story barreling toward a tragic ending. The humor in Titus is dark and twisted; that in R&J intensifies the tragedy. In both cases, we see the work of a writer who knew how to manipulate the emotions of his audience.
Romeo & Juliet. Staged by Brian Isaac Phillips, CSC’s artistic director, this production has been modernized.
The inhabitants of “fair Verona” wear contemporary clothes, and their entertainment and behavior has a 21st-century overlay. But rather than trying to twist it too far out of its original context in a Renaissance town in Italy, I’d say this feels more like an alternate reality. Billy Chace plays the brash Mercutio, Romeo’s kinsman, as a madcap clubber, always ready for a good time with his cronies Benvolio (Jessie Wray Goodman) and Balthasar (Maggie Lou Rader). The masked ball at the Capulets’ estate where Romeo (Ian Bond) first spies Juliet (Sara Clark) begins with delicate chamber music but quickly devolves to thumping club tunes.
But this filter does not diminish the nature of the central characters. Both Bond and Clark play their roles like the hormonal teens they are meant to be. Juliet is not quite 14, and Romeo is perhaps 16. When we first meet him, he is pining for Rosaline, a love we never meet — we only hear Romeo’s idealized whining that she’s spurned him. He wants to be in love, and she’s his most likely prospect. He quickly transfers his affections to the sweetly innocent Juliet, and the petite Clark gives her the kind of breathless silliness that is endearing if not enduring. Neither of the lovers is meant to experience love in any profound way: They are swept up in the passion of youth — they go from meeting to marriage in a blur of four or five scenes.
Bond’s Romeo spends a lot of time agonizing over his frustrations, and he doesn’t seem to mature much, despite the seriousness of the situation. Clark’s Juliet has more opportunity to show growth and personal recognition at the conundrum life has presented her. Her loving but thoughtless nurse (Sherman Fracher), her domineering, unthinking father (Jim Hopkins) and her vain, superficial mother (Jennifer Joplin) make matters worse by forcing her toward an arranged marriage. The well-intentioned Friar Lawrence (Jeff Groh, more like a hippie raising strange herbs than a devout priest) aids the young lovers, but like the nurse, exacerbates a tough situation with his meddling. Clark is stunningly honest in her role, and the heat between her and Bond is palpable, if uncomplicated — as it should be for a couple of teenagers in heat.
The production as a lot of stage combat, and seeing it two weeks into its run let me see how capable Cincy Shakes can be. I had heard things were a little rough on the opening weekend, but there was no evidence of that at the performance I saw, which was thoroughly enjoyed by the full house.
Titus Andronicus. This show requires a lot of hand-to-hand combat and considerably more blood than Romeo & Juliet. It was all done with ghastly if over-the-top realism. The plot is both simple and ridiculous by contemporary standards: Titus (Nick Rose) is a successful general who turns down the chance to become emperor. Things go bad for him and his family when his prisoner Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Miranda McGee in a showy, sexy role), gets hitched to the emperor Saturninus (played as a foppish, preening fool by Justin McComb). She wreaks some vengeance on Titus’s offspring, masterminded by her scheming lover Aaron (Darnell Benjamin) who steers her fawning, selfish sons Chiron (Travis Emery) and Demetrius (Zach Schute) to some vile acts. After gruesome violence on Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Maggie Lou Rader), a grief-crazed Titus figures out some even more grotesque ways to fight back.
This is all spelled out in the script and played out on CSC’s stage with a lot of gore and stage blood — decapitated heads and severed hands — for instance, and extended to the brink of insanity lengths in the second half with Titus’s missing left hand replaced by a metal forearm that accommodates various implements from a fork to a corkscrew to a set of mechanical knife blades (like the electric knife I use to carve the Thanksgiving turkey). You can be assured these are used for violent purposes, and Nick Rose, a CSC veteran (in fact, one of its founders), revels in Titus’s madness — with some manic behavior, including bemoaning the “murder” of a fly in a blackly humorous moment. Rose is having a ball with this juicy role.
Director Jeremy Dubin has provided a different sort of filter for this interpretation of Titus Andronicus, that of the sci-fi genre of “Steampunk,” which presumes that the Victorian ingenuity of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in the 19th century extended its steam-driven, mechanical technology prevailed in the 20th and 21st centuries. Accordingly, costumes are a curious, colorful mishmash of Victorian styles — cutaway coats, vests, goggles, belts and bustiers — and six video monitors around the theater display show cards offering the gist of scenes with quaint, tongue-in-cheek summaries. Each act began with n actor attaching a hand crank to a gear at stage right to wind up the mechanism of the show. Similarly, when certain offstage action needed to be represented, a servant bearing a kind of magic lantern projector came on to reveal a scene, which the audience saw on the monitors. (The device was clever; I wish it had been more fully and frequently integrated into the action.)
Titus Andronicus is not a great play, but Cincy Shakes — and especially actors Nick Rose, Miranda McGee, Darnell Benjamin and Maggie Lou Rader — make this production great fun to watch, providing you’re not too squeamish. It is, after all, a bloody mess, intentionally so and perfect for the thrill-seekers of late October.