Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare's bloodiest plays. It begins with a Roman military funeral and a ritual murder—in this case, the son of an enemy queen who stands nearby in shackles, watching the sacrifice. It quickly skips on to the enemy queen seducing the Roman emperor. Then her other sons take revenge on the title character—a revered Roman general, played by Amy Thone—by killing his future son-in-law, raping his daughter, and cutting off her hands and tongue. That sets off a chain of bloody dominoes. Soon, people are slitting throats, having their hands cut off, and forcing each other into cannibalism. It's Shakespeare's version of the Saw movies, and its first production—so historical sources tell us—sold lots of tickets.
But over the years, critics have dismissed Titus as bloody but boring. Almost all storytellers busy themselves with plots and external events (action movies, romantic novels, etc.), but we keep turning back to Shakespeare because of his uncommon ability to shine a light on his characters' interior action—Hamlet, Cleopatra, and even Macbeth fascinate us for how they think, not for what they do. But the characters of Titus don't think. Aside from a few moments when Titus emotes (but still doesn't reflect much) about his horrible situation, the characters just run around like doom machines—raping, scheming, digging up corpses at night to dump on doorsteps—but offering zero insight into why. Hamlet can barely bring himself to pick up a knife, but he sure can plumb his own soul, which makes him ten thousand times more interesting than the violent zombies of Titus.
For that reason, any successful production of Titus doesn't need great actors. (Though great actors are never a liability.) It needs great, gory special effects. The current all-female production of Titus Andronicus by upstart crow (the company prefers small capitalization) has great actors (Stranger Genius Amy Thone, Sarah Harlett, Rhonda Soikowski, others) but puny special effects. The actors try really hard, railing and howling—at some moments while she was shouting at the heavens, it looked like Thone's blood vessels were about to burst out of her temples—but they're trying to make up for lack of content with emotion. Then they sprinkle a little blood around the stage after each murder. It's not enough.
The one textual insight in Titus (which director Rosa Joshi doesn't touch) might be political. Its version of Rome has a stupid, shitty emperor who lets stupid, shitty shit happen to its citizens—even the innocent ones. Some have their tongues cut out. Some don't have any lines. Either way, they don't get to say much.
Giving voice to the voiceless was Woody Guthrie's specialty. This year marks his hundredth birthday, and Strawberry Theater Workshop has remounted its stage-collage This Land—a combination of Guthrie songs, Guthrie biography, and words from John Steinbeck—to commemorate it.
With a combination of puppets and actors, This Land is a bracing scan of Guthrie and his era, as he followed economic refugees from Texas to California and told their stories with wit, pathos, and sensitivity. While Titus records the deeds of big shots, but puts no insight in their mouths, Guthrie did the opposite. He gave peons—dirt farmers, kids, migrant workers of all skin colors—voices and names, revealing their interiority and allowing them to be people. From the rough-hewn puppets to the funny songs, This Land does its job. Its conclusion (I thought) was especially apt: a story about why Guthrie wrote his famous "This Land Is Your Land" (in reaction to Irving Berlin's stupidly mawkish song "God Bless America"), and then closing with no rousing version of the song and no bows from the actors. That seemed like an apt gesture: We're all in this together, and there aren't doers (in this case, the actors) and the done-upon (in this case, the audience). We're all one.
Later, while reading the program, I realized there was an entire second act that I'd missed because I thought the 80-minute first act was the whole thing. Some folks involved with the show say I missed vital parts of This Land; some in the audience said it got too obvious and sentimental after intermission. I'm going to hold on to the version of the play that I saw, and deeply enjoyed.