It's not the excessive gore that makes Titus Andronicus a minor play in the Shakespearean oeuvre. Yes, Titus does contain multiple amputations, cannibalism and many murders. But there's also a lot of carnage in Hamlet, as well as an onstage eye-gouging in Lear, and a severed head in Macbeth. No, what makes this early Shakespeare work so decisively second-rate is how strangely shallow it is, how cartoon-like in its depiction of heroes and villains. True, Titus himself contains a couple of contradictions — he's not above killing his own offspring in a fit of pique, for example. But there are no contradictions in Lucius, his noble son, or Lavinia, his daughter and general paragon of female innocence. And the bad guys are even simpler: for instance, Aaron the Moor, whose greatest fear is that he may have once done a good deed; Tamora the Goth, who plots crimes for a pastime; and Tamora's sons, Chiron and Demetrius, whose idea of a fine afternoon is rape followed by mutilation.
What these characters do for most of the play is abuse one another, revenge themselves on one another, and cry out in pain or glee as events may warrant. And through it all there's next to no philosophy of any value or psychological insight of any subtlety. This may be Shakespeare (or not; some critics argue against his authorship), but it's Shakespeare on the level of an ultra-violent video game. You'd never guess that this guy could write a Romeo, much less an Othello.
The story that Titus tells is about a somewhat noble warrior who makes the mistake of enraging a viper. Titus Andronicus has just returned to Rome when he orders that a son of captured Goth queen Tamora be sacrificed. Minutes later, the Emperor Saturninus takes Tamora to be his lawful wife, and suddenly Titus has an enemy in a very high place.
The mayhem begins forthwith. First Tamora's two sons murder Bassianus, Titus' son-in-law. Then Titus' two sons, Martius and Quintus, are made to look like the killers, and are sent to prison to be tortured. Next, Tamora's sons rape Titus' daughter Lavinia, cut out her tongue and amputate both her hands. Now Aaron the Moor (an object of Shakespeare's casual racism) tricks Titus into believing that if he cuts off his own hand, his two falsely accused sons will be spared execution. The hand is cut off — but in return all that Titus receives are his sons' severed heads. You get the general idea.
Now, when a play like Titus offers so little that's recognizably human, a production can go two ways: It can try to add depth through fine acting, or it can glory (some might say wallow) in its limitations. The current Jobsite Theater/Center Theater Company production attempts to go the first route, and, to its credit, partly succeeds. The problem is, the main portrayal — John Snell as Titus — lacks color. What one wants from a Titus is greatness of soul or, at the very least, charisma; what Snell brings to the role is simplicity, rough innocence, a suggestion of oafishness. Fortunately many of the other performances are top-notch. Best of all are Jonathan Harrison, whose Lucius is thoroughly noble and sincere, and Ami Sallee Corley, whose Tamora is a sexy and cunning and commanding.
But also first-rate are Chris Holcom, who, playing against type, makes a persuasively venal Chiron, and Sara Collins, who as Lavinia, is appropriately virginal in spirit if not in (sad) reality. Brian Shea as Saturninus is, uncharacteristically, disappointing, playing the emperor as more of a petulant loudmouth than his lines would suggest. And Ize Ofrika, in the thankless role of Aaron, is just morose and hard to understand; if ever a villain needed Prozac, this is he.
David Jenkins' direction is impressive: Ge's clearly not intimidated by the scale of Shakespearean theater and never lets us feel that events have gotten out of hand. Another successful element is Dickie Corley and Brian Smallheer's attractive set, a carpeted multi-leveled construction presided over by two abstract trees. In fact, even with some defects, this is one of the best of recent productions in which Jobsite had a part, and an entirely creditable presentation of Shakespeare. If only the play had been something besides Titus. ...
There are a few memorable moments. For example, when battered Titus objects to the killing of a fly ("How would he hang his slender gilded wings/ And buzz lamenting doings in the air"). Then there's a scene wherein nearly-mad Titus ties messages to arrows, and sends petitions to the gods, demanding justice. And there are a couple of scenes in which the otherwise depraved Aaron defends his helpless newborn son from harm. If these isolated episodes don't add up to a whole play, at least they offer some relief from the orgy of revenge and mayhem. And they remind us of another Shakespeare: of Lear primarily, but also of Othello and The Merchant of Venice.
Which reminds me: Aside from American Stage's annual musicalized Shakespeare in the Park, I'm only recall, off the top of my head, one other locally produced Shakespeare play (college productions excepted) in the last four years.
So there's a need for more Shakespeare here. From Richard III to The Tempest, we're missing a lot.
Titus Andronicus is a strange choice.
But let's hope that it's prelude to the Shakespeare that matters.