Theater review: ‘Titus Redux’ at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
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“Titus Andronicus” may well have been the most formulaic of Shakespeare’s plays, but anyone expecting a by-the-book revenge tragedy in “Titus Redux” is in for some shell shock.
For starters, forget the whole revenge thing. Director John Farmanesh-Bocca’s intense, highly physicalized adaptation for this Circus Theatricals/Not Man Apart co-production re-conceives the piece as an impassioned critique of the domestic legacy of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — specifically, the dramatic rise in suicide and murder rates among returning combat veterans.
In this version, an always-compelling Jack Stehlin plays General Titus Andronicus as a tightly wound war hero afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead of Shakespeare’s victim of deliberate intrigue and betrayal at the hands of his rulers, this Titus is more a casualty of official neglect. “Retired like an old tank,” he’s sent back to his D.C.-area suburban home and left to do battle with his traumatic flashbacks and paranoid delusions. An amusingly glib TV commercial for his slick politician brother (Nicholas Hormann) telegraphs the government disconnect.
Trying to map events onstage to the source text will only get you in trouble. Vengeful barbarian queen Tamora has been “reduxed” into Titus’ own perky but increasingly desperate housewife (versatile Brenda Strong). Her “crimes” amount to regret over the combat death of their eldest son, and a possible affair with their neighbor, Aaron (played by the director, who morphs from an affable guy into a sinister jihadist). Similarly, Tamora’s preppy sons (Dash Pepin and Vincent Cardinale) and Titus’ sacrificial Lavinia (Margeaux J. London) are part of the same family, and all are subject to Titus’ fevered imaginings (at one point, he sees Tamora and sons as a trio of comic book superheroes).
Just how much of what we’re watching is the product of Titus’ deranged hallucinations is left open-ended, but either way the images of dismemberment, rape, murder and cannibalism are no less horrific than in the original play. Extensive use of video and dance heighten the impact, particularly in the juxtaposition of Tamora’s frolicking ballet followed by the intricately choreographed assault on Lavinia.
Where the still-maturing Shakespeare sacrificed behavioral credibility for the sake of dramatic formula in this early play, the approach here makes a diametrically opposite compromise: there’s emotional and psychological congruity, but the message-heavy narrative is barely coherent. Amid the updated dialogue, some of the retained verse is an awkward fit at times, but assured delivery by Stehlin, Strong and London ensures the poetic resonance.
– Philip Brandes
“Titus Redux,” Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 12. $35. (877) 369-9112 or www.circustheatricals.com. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.