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THEATER REVIEW Titus Andronicus
by Karen Topham

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Playwright: William Shakespeare

At: Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: . Price: $35. Scheduled to run through March 14, the decision was made to close the show March 5.

Director Ian Damont Martin's vision of Shakespeare's most graphically bloody play, Titus Andronicus, incorporates so much silly comedy that sustaining the play's darkness becomes difficult.

Shakespeare himself, of course, used comedy to offset his uglier themes ( Othello's Iago, for example, is often hilarious as he plots the main character's demise ) and here his poetry is often couched in what could reasonably be called black comedy. But Martin's often outlandish interpretations go to the heart of some of his characters, rendering them far less menacing than the Bard intended.

This production's Emperor Saturninus ( Christopher Wayland ) is more of a child throwing tantrums than the vindictive leader who has two of Titus's sons beheaded. ( He is even shown in one scene having an actual tantrum, throwing himself on the floor and whining before collapsing into his wife's lap and *sucking his thumb." )

That wife, formerly the defeated Goth Queen Tamora ( Michaela Petro ), despite her desperate and secret desire for vengeance against Titus, becomes an Iago-like comic villain rather than a bereaved mother angry about the loss of her son. She routinely breaks the fourth wall with facial expressions that elicit knowing laughter from the audience as she coddles her emperor husband like a mother. It's a fine performance by Petro—one of the best in the play—but it makes some of her actions, like handing Titus's daughter Lavinia ( Tarina Bradshaw ) over to be raped and disfigured by her sons, very difficult to digest.

Titus himself ( Colin Jones ) ironically could do with a little more humor in his deliveries. His clearly comic moments—such as his handling of Tamora and sons when they come to him disguised—sound pretty much the same as his righteous ones or his hurt and shocked ones, and many of them are painfully overacted. He is never less than perfectly clear in his intentions and phrasing, but the exaggerated style is a constant reminder that he is performing.

The best performances in the play belong to several women. In addition to Petro, Laketia Harris acquits herself well as Saturnine's sister ( originally his brother ) Bassanius, whose love for Lavinia is both honorable and lustful. ( That the couple are now lesbians glides easily into the play. ) Bradshaw too is strong as Lavinia. Though her articulation in the early stages leaves something to be desired, her post-rape characterization is heartbreaking. Most powerful of all, though, is Gabrielle Lott-Rogers as Marcus, Titus's sister ( originally brother ) and one of the Tribunes of Rome. Lott-Rogers becomes the soul of the second act of the play as the actions of both Titus and Tamora devolve into chaos and bloodshed.

This ambitious but uneven Titus stands out for its nontraditional casting and its fight design ( R&D Choreography ) and handles its gruesome elements well. I can't help wishing, though, that Martin had edited it a lot more. This is not one of Shakespeare's greatest artistic achievements. His poetry does not stand up to his later works ( or the contemporaneous Richard III ). Without trimming, it makes for a very long evening.

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