An intense, high-spirited night last night at the Public. Michael Sexton’s production of “Titus” was bloody bloody and lots of fun. They really nailed the play’s strange combination of hyper-melodrama and almost-playfulness, leading up to an over-the-top finale at the final banquet, complete with (actual) buckets of blood, cartoon post-it notes, and a food-fight between Titus and Tamora with mushy pieces of pie.
In the chaos, Titus’s recipe almost sounded simple, a straightforward and literal way of making sense out of disorder —
Let me grind their bones to powder small,
And with this hateful liquor temper it,
And in that paste let their vile heads be bak’d. (5.2.197-200)
Several performances stood out in a strong cast. Jacob Fishel as Saturninus and Jennifer Ikeda as Lavina were both veterans of Red Bull’s brilliant Women beware Women in 2009, a production that gets better each time I remember it. (I think about the old joke about Juan Rulfo, author of Pedro Paramo, whose reputation supposedly grew with each new novel he didn’t write.) Fishe’ls fey Saturninus made me want a bigger part for him next time. Ikeda’s mute presence during Marcus’s interminable Ovidian lament upon discovering her maimed (“Alas, a crimson river of warm blood, / Like to a bubbling fountain…” 2.4.11-57) made a devastating critique of poetic fancies.
Ron Cephas Jones, who I thought did a decidedly mixed job as Caliban and Charles the wrestler in the Bridge Project’s As You Like It / Tempest double bill a few years ago, was a great Aaron: smart, sexy, charismatic , and powerful. Strung up by Lucius and awaiting execution, he rained brags down on his captors’ heads —
Even now I curse the day — and yet I think
Few come within compass of my curse —
Wherein I did not do some notorious ill… (5.1.125-7)
Rob Campbell’s Lucius and Stephanie Roth Haberle’s Tamora were also strong, but I’m ambivalent about Jay O. Sanders as Titus. He’s big and imposing, with a bear-ish presence that filled up the stage in army camo during the first scene — but too often, esp in the opening parts of the play, his bear was more teddy than grizzly. He hit his stride after losing his mind, and in some ways the part felt more Lear-like and aged than I might have liked. He made a compelling mad father, but less of a conquering general. “I am the sea,” he claims when trumpeting his grief — but he didn’t quite get there, at least not for me. The bad guys — Aaron, Saturninus, Tamora — had the flash in this production.
The lab-budget staging was great: a stack of maybe 3 dozen 8 x 4 plyboard sheets were moved, illustrated, and shuffled around to create almost everything — late in the action they were tables, kitchen counters, and an executioner’s board, earlier they had been thrones and gravestones and pits and caves. I especially loved watching Frank Dolce, who played the boys’ parts, draw symbolic cartoons — birds, crowns, swords — on wood and on post-it notes, and Lavina’s mouth-held drawings in act 5 extended this conceit.
I also had the strange experience of slightly mis-hearing Aaron’s line about surprising Lavinia in the woods — I heard “The woods are roofless, dreadful, deaf, and dull,” but the line reads “ruthless” — and thinking Robert Frost. Not sure what to make of that.