Relentless: ‘Titus Redux’

"Titus Redux" is co-produced by the New American Theatre and Not Man Apart - Physical Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Ed Krieger

Here’s a parlor game for all your dramaturg friends: Prod them for their opinions of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

The aesthetes among them will point out that no less than T.S. Eliot called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written,” then back up their charge by citing scholars who doubt the Bard even wrote it.

Defenders will spit on the ground in disgust at the aesthetes, then upend the play’s detractors with quotes from Polish critic Jan Kott about how Shakespeare’s first tragedy took cruelty beyond mere physical limitations to reveal a “moral hell.” Then there’s director Julie Taymor, whose stage and film versions made the play so famous even rock bands named themselves in its honor.

Whatever people take Titus Andronicus for, there’s no denying the singular reason for its recent revival. To cop a popular four-word phrase, it’s the violence, stupid.

Sure, history’s Elizabethans perfected the art of hanged, drawn and quartered. But with so many of us besotted with the slapstick violence of flesh-eating zombies, dusting off a 400-year -old -play makes macabre sense. Regardless of era, the spectacle of gore endures.

Titus Redux, John Farmanesh-Bocca‘s reworking under the banner of The New American Theatre and No Man Apart, isn’t slapstick in its depiction of Shakespeare’s goriest play. Framed by our war-on-terror, post-traumatic-stressed foreign policy, it’s mostly dead earnest. Where Shakespeare’s Titus fights the war outside, this one confronts the war inside his head. It’s a well-meaning attempt to dramatize the horror of PTSD: producers go so far as to list the National Center for PTSD’s website in the program. It’s also an apt metaphor for the mass paranoia terrorism induces. Fear, we know, feeds on itself.

A sense of slapstick, meanwhile, is reserved for scenes in which Lavinia sings a pop song to her Ken doll;  Chiron and Demetrius cavort in superhero costumes; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Our House” is balm for all the bloodletting in between.

The see-sawing tone is enough to make some seasick. But there’s no denying the relentless exploration at work in Farmanesh-Bocca’s vision. Instead of doing battle with the Goths per Shakespeare’s original, Titus, played to a convincing hilt by Jack Stehlin, instead goes toe-to-toe with a Tamora recast as his wife, and an Afghan tribal leader named “The Hawk.” True to the original, Aaron remains a villain.

Farmanesh-Bocca also forsakes the Roman setting for one of American empire in decline. Because of this, the play dives into the perilous waters of stage polemic. Film segments of suburban America behind white picket-fences, and a dance with U.S. flags, make it hard to tell if the play mocks the heartland or laments its moral direction.

The most searing moments come when Shakespeare’s text is reworked in ways too large to miss. When Aaron recites his famous “thousand dreadful things” soliloquy in Act IV, Titus joins in with gusto toward the end. And the play’s many references to blood are manifested in an early scene in which Titus spars — shirts off — with sons Chiron and Demetrius on top of the family dining table.

The play stretches credulity to the point of snapping, when its filmed portions take over the narrative. Bur for those who thrive on the sheer number of ideas per scene, this Titus is at least a noble failure. At times it’s even a raging success.

Titus Redux, Los Angeles Theatre Center. Through June 19. 213-232-2800.

Ben Fulton

Ben Fulton, who writes about theater and other assorted arts matters for the Salt Lake Tribune, is an amateur violinist who still has not seen The Book of Mormon.

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