by Terrance Mc Arthur
William Shakespeare, poet-playwright of the centuries, author of towering masterpieces like Hamlet, Richard III, Romeo & Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titus Andronicus, King Lear.
Wait a minute…Titus Andronicus? Shakespeare’s first tragedy? That blood-spattered concoction of multiple-assailant rape, forcible removal of body parts, miscegenation, mutilation, beheadings, and cannibalism? Yeah. That’s the one. It may be ultra-violent to today’s reader, but it was a hit in Shakespeare’s day, and the Woodward Shakespeare Festival gives the script what may be its Fresno premiere through August 26.
Titus (Jay Parks), a war-weary general who has lost too many sons in combat, returns to Rome to bury more of his sons, and learns that the people want him as the new emperor. He declines the honor, deferring to a son of the emperor, Saturninus (Tania Haigounian), who offers to marry Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Kenia Morales), already pledged to the other son of the late emperor, Bassianus (Chamang Yang). Instead, Saturninus marries Tamora (Heather Gibeson), Queen of the Goths, whose son Titus sacrificed at the funeral. Her remaining sons (Joshua Taber, Daniel Serrano), kill Bassianus, rape Lavinia, cut off her hands and tongue to stop her from accusing them, and frame Lucius (Rene Anthony Ponce) Titus’ last son, for the crime. Aaron (Harrison Mills), the Moorish lover of the new empress, tells Titus to cut off his hand to save the life of his son. After that, things get really freaky.
What a plum part for Parks! He gets to show grief, sorrow, and stoicism, go temporarily crazy (or is it Hamlet-smart crazy?), indulge in Vincent Price-level revenge, and commit multiple justified homicides. He starts out noble and reserved, but the edges unravel quickly. His lunacy-with-a-logic has a strength that sustains the character.
Morales is the much-wronged Lavinia, who doesn’t have many lines because of loss of a tongue. Nevertheless, she is riveting in her stillnesses, heart-rending in her inarticulate cries, and her clenched fists symbolize the loss of her dexterity.
Gibeson plows through the role of the Goth-queen-turned-Roman-empress like a battle cruiser, powerful and dangerous. Manipulative and vindictive, she encourages the evil in her sons.
Mills is arrogant and malignant as the blackamoor, reveling in his disdain of Roman morality. His voice is crisp, all the better to hear the venom he spews. Director Greg Taber’s cutting of the script gives him a stronger position in the play, and he uses it with gusto.
Jessica Reedy radiates a quiet solidity as Marcus, the Roman Tribune brother of Titus. Seldom moving, she provides a pivot point for the political power plays of the Empire, silently judging their value and worth. You have to watch her.
Taber and Serrano embody both parts of Tamora’s evil. Tabor is tall and lean, with a cynical, superior smirk. Serrano is more physical, moving like a bestial predator. Greg Tabor is known for cutting, rearranging, and repurposing scripts to fit his visions. He combines characters, jettisons speeches and scenes, and creates his own worlds on the stage. With all his trimming, he has given the production a Pinteresque dose of silences, separating phrases and punctuating them with long looks. The silences are filled with a wall of music that has its own added-in page of the program, ranging from Tool to Leonard Cohen.
Titus Andronicus plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through August 26, with the action beginning at 8 p.m. The show is free—Donations are gleefully accepted and seriously sought. Cars entering Woodward Park are charged $5, so some people park across Friant Rd. and take a walk to the stage area. At intermission, rush to the snack table for the best brownies in captivity. More info can be found on their website.
Check out more theatre reviews & other local entertainment articles in our Arts & Entertainment section.