It's hard to go wrong with a play that includes the stage direction "Enter Messenger with two heads and a hand." This is what happens after the title character in Titus Andronicus is cajoled to hack off his own hand in hopes of preventing two of his sons from being beheaded. So much for that plan.
Shakespeare's first play, Titus is pretty much a nonstop orgy of sex and violence, with multiple revenge plots being eagerly pursued in the bloody streets of ancient Rome. Staged for free by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival at outdoor venues throughout the area, the play offers some gripping moments, but the overall impact is weakened somewhat by excessive surface intensity and a paucity of nuance in some scenes.
Aging Titus has returned to Rome a conquering hero, with Goth prisoners in tow, but he turns down an offer to become emperor. Instead, he throws his support to Saturninus, first-born son of the late emperor and, not incidentally, a sleazy little shit.
In quick order, Saturninus claims Titus' daughter Lavinia as his queen, although she is in love with his brother Bassianus. Righteously pissed, Bassie steals Lavinia away and Saturninus gloms onto prisoner Tamora, queen of the Goths, as his bunkmate. There follow a string of cruel deaths, choppings, and stabbings, many schemed by the clever Moor Aaron, until the carnage leaves virtually no more speaking roles.
Titus is the Shakespearean equivalent of a summer action flick with lots of corpses and few regrets, and it can be a sizzling thriller. Under the inventive and adept direction of Allan Byrne, CleveShakes does a creditable job given a nickel and dime (make that two nickels) budget and some young actors.
Festival veteran Allen Branstein gives his all as the deeply conflicted Titus. Though he never quite latches onto the music and flow of Will's words, he conveys this man's strength and his deep need for payback. Mary Alice Beck fashions Tamora as a lusty spitfire, and Darius Stubbs makes his lines sing as the unabashedly evil Aaron.
Keith Kornajcik gives a crisp rendition of Saturninus, although he could easily go darker, while Xavier Reminick is strong and resolute as Titus' son Lucius. James Tomola and Bryan Ritchey are suitably unpleasant as Tamora's nasty sons, although they rely a bit too often on bitter beer faces for their characterizations.
Squeezed into a bit over an hour and a half, the production tends to rush some scenes that deserve more time. One is the climactic moment when Titus offers Saturninus and Tamora a pie he baked from the bodies of her sons, whom he has just killed. Chomping on thin little Pop Tarts instead of an overfilled slice of gore, this turning point should linger and provide a bit more of a, um, gag than it ultimately does.
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