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The Arts
January 31-February 2, 2007

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'Titus Andronicus'

Photo by Elena Murphy/
Manly man: Michael Jerome West plays Roman warrior Titus Andronicus to the hilt and beyond.

Tit for Tat

A cycle of revenge drives RTE's updated 'Titus Andronicus'

By Marianne Messina

IN RENEGADE Theatre Experiment's production of Shakespeare's early play Titus Andronicus, "Romans" is a biker bar, Titus is the leather man with the chopper and the newly named imperial successor, Saturninus, lives on high—above the bar. "Swords" are switchblades; "chariots" are motorcycles; Goths wear black eye paint; and in this manly production, the stage is overrun by beer-swilling men. Shakespeare's play jumped into a theatrical era teeming with revenge tragedies. At the opening, Rome has just fought a 10-year war with the Goths and captured the Goth queen Tamora (Letha Remington). The noble Titus (Michael Jerome West) helps to install Saturninus (Gabriel A. Ross, perpetually fuming and angry) on the throne. And surprise, surprise, Saturninus turns on Titus and marries Titus' sworn enemy Tamora.

The revenge begins when Titus sacrifices Tamora's son to appease his Roman soldiers—"for their brethren slain, religiously they ask a sacrifice." Queen Tamora pleads for her son's life, but he's dragged offstage and disappears out the side door before his executioners come back waving bloody knives. Since one good revenge deserves another, Tamora bids Saturninus to bide his time, taking him aside: "I'll find a day to ... make them know what it is to let a queen kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain."

As the cycle of revenge gets more vicious, it's easy to get caught up in the visceral emotions, to take sides and yearn for the revenges. If you come into Hoover Theater bearing grievances from life, the play can even be cathartic. (Frankly, I'd like to see it staged among office cubicles—cut-off hands, limbs and tongues being apt metaphors for office politics.) Tamora's two sons rape and mutilate Titus' daughter and eventually two more of Titus' sons are killed, after Titus sacrifices his hand to pay for their release.

Our own gut reactions to revenge in this play give cause to ponder primal violence. I was reminded of the Shia peace walk through San Jose this past weekend, and how part of the walk is about contemplating ancient martyrs, similarly mutilated. Well, it's a bloody play to say the least, but not so dismal as it sounds. How does Renegade Theatre Experiment deal with blood and prosthetics? Often with tongue in cheek. Director Peter Canavese drops in modernisms with a distinctly RTE flavor. The heads of Titus' wrongly executed sons are delivered to him in plastic shopping bags, and West dangles them about like turnips. At one meal, Titus and family eat Doritos and pass around a two-liter bottle of Coke. Sick, macabre humor, but it solves realism's prosthetic problem and serves to let off steam—the comedy is welcome.

Of course, it begins to feel like Supersize Me when the drunken clown (Sara Trupski) selling "pigeons" pulls chicken bones from a Kentucky Fried Chicken tub. The show occasionally steps on a Shakespearean land mine—what to do with all these people onstage, especially the bleeding and dying ones—while some character delivers an overlong speech? But the actors take a healthy stab at Shakespeare's language. The tall Michael Jerome West makes a fine Titus, both in his leather biker vest and later in his shorts, knee-highs, sneakers and housecoat. He has a great moment when he takes a long pause to gaze at the son he has killed (Alec Page), as if his son was morphing right before his eyes, from the boy he killed to the boy he loved.

A. Zell Williams is smooth and articulate as Aaron, the queen's consort. Jack Starr, flipping the bone at Titus or rolling his eyes, injected some humor into Tamora's psychopathic son Demitrius. The production is fun and expansive. Canavese lets the acting spill into the entire theater space, using exits behind the audience for long marches and the space at the foot of the audience for judgments. RTE's Titus offers a fat experience ranging from awkward to silly to gripping to nauseating, but in the end it is very satisfying—which may give one pause to ask, Is revenge ever a good thing or are we all just hopelessly lost?

Titus Andronicus, a Renegade Theatre Experiment production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Feb. 10 at the Historic Hoover Theater, 1635 Park Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $13/$15. (408.351.4440)

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