So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. -Numbers 35:33
Dallas — The immortal themes of blood and justice, gods and revenge, are at the heart of Shakespeare Dallas’ production of Titus Andronicus, the first time the group has staged this title in its four decades. Directed by Christie Vela, all the elements of the play weave a beautiful tapestry of the human experience, holding up the mirror to the audience and asking: be thou barbarous?
After ten years of war with the Goths, veteran Roman General Titus Andronicus returns to announce victory, and to bury his 21 sons lost in the war. In Shakespeare’s text, and deftly done in Raphael Parry’s performance, we feel the beginning of the madness that will overcome Titus by the end of the play. It is a madness based on contradiction: what does one owe the gods, one’s family and one’s state? Which is of prime importance in war and in peace? Lastly and perhaps most importantly the question: how does one stop oneself from being a soldier? How do you stop searching for and destroying your enemy quickly and decisively?
Though Titus is off the battlefield and gloriously returned to Rome, after a total of 40 years at war we see what he has become: a man who is built to kill. There is no hesitation in Parry’s Titus. His movement, his speech and his bearing reinforce the idea of a commanding general closing with and destroying his enemies—but there is a hint of madness in this, and in the first few acts, Parry lets that madness slowly creep out until at the end of the play we have “the mad baker.” Parry dances and giggles as he serves out the pastries made of the murdered sons of Tamora.
If Titus is an Achilles figure (a great warrior, terrible at politics), then Tamora is an Odysseus. Played with emotional dexterity attuned to the high political stakes involved by Nicole Berastequi, Tamora manipulates everyone in sight to achieve her ends. After quickly ascending from prisoner of war to empress (a not wholly unbelievable plot point according to Livy) she proceeds to consolidate her power by publicly calling for mercy and understanding between the factions of Rome, while secretly revenging the murder of her son by the Andronici.
Berastequi’s subtlety and ability in this role shouldn’t be understated. She is in some way a mirror image of Parry’s Titus, but replaces brute aggression with cunning. First relying on the love of a mother for her son, then a wife for a husband, and a paramour to a lover, she uses every subterfuge to get her revenge—and nearly succeeds.
But as Edmund Wilson said of the Civil War, echoing Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address: “The gods demand blood,” and at the end of the play she and her bloodline are wiped out, save for her child born of Aaron the Moor, which will live only at the mercy of the remaining Andronici.
Jamal Sterling as Aaron the Moor is excellent, bringing a unique energy to the play. His pacing and delivery stand out—just that necessary amount to provide needed distinction between the citizenry of Rome, the court of the Goths, and a Moor who finds himself in the middle of it all. The outstanding Natalie Young, as Lavinia, shifts from an embodiment of innocence in her first scene to excited bride-to-be and then to a defiled and dismembered grotesque was intensely memorable.
The duo of Parker Grey and Branden Loera as Chiron and Demetrius are impressive in their range. Not only does it seem like they are everywhere at once in their scenes, running and fighting across the stage, but their interplay with each other highlights the necessary dipoles of humor and horror that recur throughout the play.
Everything about T.A. Taylor as Marcus Andronicus embodies “tribune and destitute Andronici.” From his powerful introduction with everything at stake, politically in the competition for the empery, to his tearful beholding of Lavinia’s bloody body, Taylor is built for this role.
While I wanted to see a bit more change of scenery, such as a notably a more pronounced crypt for the Andronici, and a forest where the play reaches its first bloody denouement, Bob Lavallee’s scenic design for the majority of the play is detailed and reinforces the power of Rome, its politics and personalities. It nicely complemented by Jen J. Madison’s costumes, Kenneth Farnsworth’s lighting, and the well-done blood and gore effects.
Special mention must be made of the “revenge, rapine and murder” scene where the staging, costumes, sound and lighting are a wonderful amalgam of a Hieronymus Bosch painting and a Día de los Muertos scene.
In Act I, Marcus Andronicus tells Titus “Thou art a Roman; be not barbarous” when Titus declares his mutinous son will not lie in the family crypt, implying that the very idea of being a Roman and being a barbarian are incompatible. But how much is it true and how much is it not understanding the contradictions in mens’ souls. Ovid perhaps struck it most succinctly:
Barbaras his ego sum, qui non intelligor illis
[Here I am a barbarian, because men understand me not]
With as much clarity and poise as actors can muster, Shakespeare Dallas explores the universal notions of what it means to be civilized and what it means to be a barbarian. And as we look on the final scene with bodies and blood covering the stage, a new Andronici emperor leading an army of Goths and a newborn child born of Goth and Moor and raised by Romans, we find we might not know.
» This week, Shakespeare Dallas moves to Addison Circle Park for two weeks.