Titus Andronicus is not a good play. It is an early Shakespeare revenge tragedy undone at every turn by the scent of parody. It's impossible to know whether to take this play seriously and, therefore, very difficult to care about its characters. It's not just that Titus has a ridiculous number of violent acts—a critic once averaged it out to one brutality every 97 lines—but that the ridiculous number of violent acts means that there is not much room for anything else.
Yet Shakespeare (though some scholars say it wasn't him at all) tries to shoehorn in a wrenching family drama, a farce starring evil versions of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, a side study of race and power, and some sexiness, too. The very unlikelihood of Titus holds a certain fascination for makers of theater: Is it possible that this production of Titus will finally redeem the widely derided play? And how will we get all of that gore onstage?
It's the latter question—the technical question—that seems to drive the most interesting Titus rematches, including a mixed new production at Washington Ensemble Theatre, directed by Katjana Vadeboncoeur. Oddly, as Julie Taymor's 1999 movie version helped to make clear, Titus needs a strong dose of naturalism to anchor the madness of the play's violence, and WET's production, while visually elegant, is missing that basic paradoxical profundity.
Titus has two sides, essentially two mirroring casts: the straights and the vamps. So much attention has to be diverted onto the unbelievable action itself (the eating, say, of meat pies made of sons) that directors and actors can forget that this play depends more on plain old psychological realism (for half the cast, that is) than seems plausible. Titus needs, in other words, actually to cry—otherwise the vamping of the petulant emperor Saturninus is just a drag show. This Saturninus (Adam Standley) does vamp, quite nicely; this Titus (Nathan Sorseth, seeming simply over his head, and it's hard to blame him) does not cry.
Technically, WET's Titus is not a revelation, but it scores on a few fronts. The script is well-cut and the action is a brisk two hours, no intermission. The set (by Andrea Bryn Bush) is ingenious, sort of like a chunk of concave Colosseum wall (with rectangle boxes cut out of it instead of arches) coated in a space-age silvery metal and divided into halves by a steeply raked ramp in the center, adding a dash of crucifixion. The boxes are tiny spaces of action, flat/framed mini-rooms. Each is backed by elastic white curtains; actors have to slip through stretchy vaginal openings to get on or off stage. (Madonna used similar box action in her 1995 bondage-and-comics-inspired video for the song "Human Nature.")
As in any respectable production of the unity-defying Titus, this one's setting is a total pastiche. Lavinia's gang rape and mutilation is a modern/ballroom-inflected dance (not quite chilling enough) set to a charming version of the jazz standard "All of Me." ("Take my lips/I want to lose them,/Take my arms/I'll never use them" indeed; the quite-good sound design is by Brendan Patrick Hogan.) Color is stripped down to one: red. Blood and entrails are red confetti, red beads, red chains, red bells, red glitter, cherry pie filling, a cascade of Hot Tamales. Most everything else is white (including a couple of icy fluorescents and the straitjacket/spacemen costumes) and silver. Puppetry plays a role in the staging: Torture is performed by one body, then absorbed by another, but with the two physically separated by several feet of space. When Tamora pretends to be Revenge, she speaks in voice-over, her speech split from her body. Power gets a neat dissection this way and is left splayed on the stage, which seems only right for Titus.
Some of the performances exceed their roles, especially Montana von Fliss (champ vamp) and David S. Hogan (champ straight), but some are too weak given how much stage time they command and how complex their characters have to become (chiefly Mikano Fukaya and Sorseth).
But there were times, and this is saying something, when you didn't wonder: What was Shakespeare thinking?