Stehlin on ‘Titus’: Finding Narrative in Abstraction

Jack Stehlin, lead actor and co-producer of "Titus Redux"

If you indulge in the HBO series Weeds, you know Jack Stehlin. And if you don’t know his role as Drug Enforcement Agency Captain Roy Till, you probably know him from any number of “angry cop” roles he’s played throughout the years. So perhaps his role as a war-torn general back from the front in Titus Redux was only a matter of mere degrees removed. Even so, as Stehling took time to discuss  at the June 16 opening of the Theatre Communications Group‘s annual convention, this version of Shakespeare’s play presents risks for both audience and actors. And that’s a good thing.

What was the greatest challenge of this role, or even the entire play?

You have to go in and out not just of time but also scenes that impart the sense that here’s a character who doesn’t know what’s happening to him in real life, and what’s taking place in his mind. The play really got started when John [Farmanesh-Bocca] and I decided to co-produce. It was also brought about by all the stories we read about our veterans coming home. One that really got our attention was a news story about a soldier who came home, then took both his best friend and girlfriend to a theater, where he tied them up and butchered them.

What are the personal connections you feel to this production?

My uncle served five tours of Vietnam. Also, the scene in which Titus takes off his shirt to fight Chiron and Demetrius on the dinner table comes straight my family. We used to call them “table fights.” My grandfather would referee.

For a lot of people, this is Shakespeare’s worst play. It’s poetic and tragic but also clumsy, not as sure-footed as his later tragedies, and so over-the-top in its gore that it elicits dark laughter. Do all these qualities match current U.S. foreign policy?

Of course there’s no lack of connection, on several levels. What destroyed Rome was greed and a tearing down of culture from the outside. They were ravaged, degraded and demoralized by the energy it took to sustain the machinery of empire.

It’s not always clear if the play sympathizes with that decline, though. Does Titus Redux mock the mainstream culture and politics that sustains our “War on Terror”? Does it lament that culture’s moral direction? Or is it just the laughter of the damned?

Isn’t it just fine for it to be all those things? If Bill Maher can do battle with people on television over these issues, why not a play? In the end, though, the play is about the undeniable fact that we’re a culture that seeks out young men in shopping malls for recruitment. Then we send them overseas and into these foreign cultures to die in war. I can’t judge anyone’s choice. I believe people are good and mean well. But stupidity can be just another word for good. That’s our dilemma.

What are the most interesting reactions you’ve heard after people have seen Titus Redux?

I’m surprised sometimes when people won’t just allow it to “happen” as a work. A person drawn to logic probably won’t respond to it in the same way other people might. We still struggle to refine moments and find places where we can make it more clear.

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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