Down with the Republic! Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” in Topanga

I often look askance at vintage plays that are updated to different time periods and locations, usually in an attempt to make current productions more accessible to today’s ticket buyers. I am usually especially dismayed at refurbished Greek/Roman dramas and comedies that are repurposed and presented without a toga in sight. But leave it to Ellen Geer to tackle a tragedy written in 1594 that takes place in ancient Rome, adapt and reset it in the future and – as if that isn’t enough – to do so with an uncanny eye and ear as a comment on contemporary America.

The Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum production of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus may be the best play I’ve ever seen presented at this Topanga Canyon amphitheater. Now, this is saying quite a lot, as the WGTB is my favorite theatre and company in all of L.A. and over the years I’ve enjoyed many plays at the Geers’ bohemian grove north of Malibu.

Presented in the great outdoors under the stars, this extremely violent play about political power and racial and sexual politics has an epic sweep. In other words, as crafted by director Ellen Geer, it is absolutely perfect for the unfolding presidential race and the ongoing so-called “war on terror.” Recast in the near future, the dystopian drama pits various factions vying for power against one another. The production’s warriors may wield automatic rifles instead of spears, but the actors essentially use Shakespeare’s deathless dialogue without much modification (although they may refer to “bullets” instead of arrows).

As is WGBT’s wont, the highly kinetic mise-en-scène makes splendid, thrilling use of Topanga’s natural environment beyond the boards, bestowing new meaning on the Bard’s dictum from As You Like It that “all the world’s a stage.” The production’s mass spectacle ranges from exciting battle scenes to political assemblages that call to mind Nuremberg rallies – or, for that matter, Trump campaign events.

Unlike Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (which WGTB has presented with much panache), Titus Andronicus does not seem to be the playwright’s reworking of historical figures and facts in ancient Rome. Be that as it may, there actually was a Roman emperor named Titus who reigned from 79 to 81 CE and whose full moniker was Titus Flāvius Caesar Vespasiānus Augustus. He had served as prefect of the Praetorian Guard. His affair with the Hebrew Queen Berenice may have influenced Shakespeare’s plot.

In Titus Andronicus Marie-Françoise Theodore (who recently co-starred in It’s Just Sex at the Secret Rose Theatre) portrays the voluptuous, sensuous beauty Queen Tamora, who is as cunning a schemer as she is a sexy steamer. Another standout in the voluminous cast is the dreadlocked Michael McFall as Aaron the Moor, who like Tamora, is among the victorious Romans’ conquered Goth captives – and her majesty’s secret lover. Aaron and Tamara share a lasciviously saucy scene in the bawdy Bard’s rambunctious play. McFall also expertly delivers some chilling lines as what seemed like an incarnation of sheer evil – although, abused as enslaved Aaron has been, he embodies “The Hate That Hate Produced” (as Mike Wallace called a 1959 TV documentary about Malcolm X and the Black Muslims).

(According to Ellen Geer, the racial references are all in the original Shakespeare; some may find these lines offensive, just as some consider The Merchant of Venice to be anti-Semitic.)

In addition to these two bravura performances, Sheridan Crist excels as the title character, a once proud professional soldier brought so low by the saga’s slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune he teeters on the abyss of insanity. In Act II, his apron-clad Titus looms like a cross between the Roman god of fire, Vulcan, and a celebrity chef gone mad, as he serves up a despicable dish of revenge (best served cold, but of course). Crist’s bare, bald (perhaps shaved?) skull suggests that other warlike Italian, Benito Mussolini (you know, that fascist who gave Donald Trump acting lessons in “Demagogic Buffoonery 101”).

Also delivering creditable performances are Christopher W. Jones as one of those characters you love to hate: Saturninus, the conniving, sniveling pretender to the throne who competes with his own brother, Bassianus (Turner Frankosky), for power and in romance. Perhaps for Saturninus there’s no difference between the two, as to him, both are about control. Saturninus and Bassianus are sons of the deceased emperor – referred to here as “president” – whose death created the power vacuum that ignites the play’s bloody conflict and bloodlust.

Melora Marshall portrays the senator Marcia Andronicus, a tribune who is Titus’ younger sister. Willow Geer is Titus’ eldest surviving daughter, the popular Lucia. The Theatricum has been a pioneer in nontraditional casting, and in Shakespeare’s original, both characters are male. (What’s next? A WGTB LGTB production called Titus Androgynous?)

After the tragedy’s numerous, skillfully rendered battle royales, Lucia is crowned as president, and as she accepts the leadership role I could not but think of Hillary Clinton’s coronation only days earlier, as the first female U.S. presidential candidate of a major party. Shakespeare’s ensemble declares: “Lucia, all hail, Rome’s gracious governor!”

Another clear reference to current events is all of Titus Andronicus‘ endless dismemberments – surely a nod to ISIS. To paraphrase Jerry Lee Lewis, there’s a “whole lotta choppin’ going on” in this ultra-violent drama. Alas, given today’s big screen sophisticated special effects, the onstage slicing and dicing and their aftereffects are, to be charitable, very low budge. While the mutilated, ravished Lavinia appropriately shakes, from my third-row, aisle-seat perch I saw nary a tear fall from actress Michelle Wicklas’ eyes. (I suspect that Lavinia’s harrowing fate influenced Bertolt Brecht’s depiction of Mother Courage‘s daughter Kattrin and her heartbreaking fate more than three centuries anon.)

Titus Andronicus has great dialogue, including additions such as the line “master of war” apparently inspired by Bob Dylan’s 1963 antiwar classic. And in the likewise added riot at the end, the dashing, longhaired Alexander Wauthier (credited as Martius) declares the probably improvised line: “Down with the Republic!” Rarely have such ominous words been uttered.

The discordant soundscape composed by Marshall McDaniel lends an appropriate note of dissonance to the somewhat Orwellian action. Jordan-Marc Diamond’s costumes are simultaneously futuristic and Romanesque. Saturninus’ cleverly upturned collar adds a sartorial splash and may be a visual pun on the term “white collar criminal.”

For some reason there were no fewer than three screen versions of Shakespeare’s tragedy filmed from 1999-2000. If readers have any explanation as to why this may have been, please email me comments. Perhaps they were motion picture premonitions of the “war on terror” to come, with their attendant, disastrous invasions and unintended consequences? The titan of this trio of Andronicus screen adaptations was Julie Taymor’s 1999 Titus, with a stellar cast: Anthony Hopkins in the title role, Jessica Lange as Tamora, Harry Lennix as Aaron and Alan Cumming as cunning Saturninus. Hearing that Titus was an extremely bloody movie, I avoided seeing it when it was released. But after seeing the WGTB rendition, I really want to watch it now. (For a clip see here.)

This stage Titus Andronicus is strong stuff, for adults and mature audiences only. Leave the kiddies at home – but for those who love their theatre adventurous and thought-provoking, strap on your sandals, dash to Topanga and don’t miss it! This just might be the best play currently on L.A.’s boards

Titus Andronicus plays in repertory through Oct. 1 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, Calif. 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310) 455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.

Photo: Melora Marshall, Sheridan Crist, Shane McDermott and Willow Geer | Miriam Geer


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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