Arts & Events

EYE FROM THE AISLE: Titus Andronicus at Impact Theatre—Bloody Butchery

By John A. McMullen II
Thursday March 01, 2012 - 05:15:00 PM
Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Anna Ishida, front) with her lover, Aaron (Reggie White, rear)
            and her sons Chiron, Demetrius, and Alarbus (l to r, Mark McDonald, Michael Garrett McDonald, and Joe Loper in Titus Andronicus at Impact Theatre
Chesire Isaacs
Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Anna Ishida, front) with her lover, Aaron (Reggie White, rear) and her sons Chiron, Demetrius, and Alarbus (l to r, Mark McDonald, Michael Garrett McDonald, and Joe Loper in Titus Andronicus at Impact Theatre

One sometimes takes a shine to a particular theatre company, perhaps out of a combination of the sustained quality of their work, their effort at keeping it affordable, and their aim to reach an audience that is not just made up of folks my gray age. For me, IMPACT THEATRE is one of those few. 

Thus, it pains me to report that their TITUS ANDRONICUS is bloody awful and does butchery to the Bard. 

There are just too many words in Shakespeare, and if you don’t pick the right ones and marry them to the right feeling and movement, then no one can understand what you are saying. 

Their last outing in verse, “Romeo and Juliet,” soared, with two leads who both had a feel for the verse and an instinct of integrating it into their acting. In this latest revenge tale of gang rape, dismemberment, human sacrifice, and cannibalism, only the four Goths and one Roman in a large cast get anywhere near what can be called Shakespearean acting.  

Anna Ishida is a standout and her abilities overshadow the others. This Critics Circle nominee, who is regularly seen at Shotgun, plays the role of the wicked Tamora, captured Queen of the Goths. Ms. Ishida speaks the verse with proper scansion in a range from dulcet, sultry tones to rasping rage. When she speaks you understand both text and subtext. And if you don’t get it from that, you understand it from her body language and inflection. When her son is sacrificed in front of her, you feel the pity and the terror. When she directs her sons to rape Titus’ daughter Lavinia, you recoil, but her manner and her physicality keep you entranced, like the beauty of the tiger before she eats you or the hypnotic undulation of a cobra before it strikes. 

Reggie White plays her lover Aaron the Moor, and while he speaks quickly and naturalistically, he hits the right words that the Bard indicates should be emphasized; though the lust between him and his Queen-lover is more played-at than played. Tamora’s rapist sons, played by twin brothers in real life Mark McDonald and Michael Garrett McDonald, also employ versification. Michael played Romeo in Impact’s R&J, and when I asked him then where he learned how to speak verse, he told me he read a book on it. He should have passed the book around to the rest of the cast. Of all the others, only Lucius, played in a gender bender role by Caitlyn Tella, acknowledges this integral component of acting Shakespeare. Even so, their intention and emotional import does not always match the text. 

Mike Delaney, as the narcissistic, lecherous young power-grabber of an Emperor Saturninus, gets some laughs in his over-casual naturalism which calls attention to itself, but the range displayed is limited to lewd to snide to enraged. 

Stacz Sadowski as the title character is not old enough to play the part (“And for these bitter tears, which now you see / Filling the aged wrinkles in my cheeks; /Be pitiful to my condemned sons”), and the role requires an actor of great nuance and experience to carry it. Mr. Sadowski imparts honest tearful emotion to the role, but it is often difficult to understand what Mr. Sadowski is saying. A much more mature and seasoned actor is required to enact the complicated psychology of a soldier who puts his allegiance to the State above Family, who will then cut off his right hand to save his sons, and whose revenge tops all: (“O villains, Chiron and Demetrius..I will grind your bones to dust/And with your blood and it I'll make a paste,/… And make two pasties of your shameful heads,/And bid that strumpet, your unhallow'd dam/ [to] the feast…/And this the banquet she shall surfeit on”). 

Director Melissa Hillman is the artistic visionary of the theatre company. While her “Romeo and Juliet” agilely moved a multitude across the mini-stage, the staging in TITUS is awkward and similar to an initial improvisation in an acting class. The pictures painted with the bodies in space do not consistently reflect the moment or the relationship. Working in miniature on such a small stage with the actors—who are often closer to the audience than the six feet of empathetic distance needed to maintain the illusion—is an art in itself, and here it seemed to be abandoned. From my last interview during R&J, Ms. Hillman revealed that she does not attend to scansion or the use of verse but leaves it to the actors; here, this laissez-faire approach made for vast differences in the acting. Quite often the speeches devolved into either bellowing every word or into that breathless, tremulous imitation of Shakespeare. 

The violence, an integral part of the action, ranged from perfunctory to impressive with memorable moments in the stabbing of Bassianus and the murder of Tamora by Titus, the latter due to the convincing acting of Ms. Ishida. The staging of falling into the pit was ingeniously devised, but then undone by not really hiding the loot that serves as a plot point. The aftermath of Lavinia’s dismemberment and the act of Titus sacrificing his hand are impactful, but the effect is not sustained by believable makeup or the pain that must come in the wake of such disfiguring disablement. When the rapacious Goth sons are hung head over heads and have their throats sliced to drain their blood, only a few squirts issue from their jugulars instead of the anticipated flood. To enact this tricky effect in this confined space requires a great deal of ingenuity; but then a big part of the reason to produce this masterpiece in such a bandbox would presumably be to show that kind of inventiveness. Once Grand Guignol (the art of blood and cruelty in theatre) are engaged, the technical magic must prevail, otherwise our expectations go unfulfilled, as they do here.  

Video has become a staple in modern productions of Shakespeare since used effectively in Baz Luhrmann’s film “Romeo & Juliet” with Leonardo DiCaprio. There it effectively introduced the situation and brought us into the modern setting. Here it only serves to confuse. Some laughs are derived from Titus’ graffiti campaign against the Emperor, but that segment is not set up well, and, unless you know the play, there is a lot of filling in of the blanks required. 

The film of “Titus” by Julie Taymor (famous for “The Lion King” and “Spiderman” on Broadway) with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange was a stylish and well-acted version that fused Shakespeare with modernity, and everyone in IMPACT’s production could have profited by multiple viewings of it. Too often theatre artists attempt to limit their influences for fear it will taint their creativity and result in imitation. In every other art, imitation and study of the masters is a key method of learning, and Stanislavsky cautioned against working in a vacuum. 

The costuming is camouflage, submachine guns, and Marine fighting knives for the soldiers, form-fitting dresses for Tamora, and suits for the Senators and the Emperor. Except for the camouflage, the costuming could have been done from the actors’ own closets.  

There is little attempt to change mood or place by lighting design. 

The assumed purpose in producing such a tragedy is to awaken pathos in the audience and have them emotionally absorb the cruel ping-pong of wreaking vengeance till, in the end, all lie dead on the stage. This TITUS occasionally gives us a glimpse of what might have been, but, except for the twisted thrill of cringing at the gore, it is a struggle to understand and relate to. 


Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare 

Directed by Melissa Hillman 

Runs through Mar 31 · Thu–Sat 8pm 

La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave, Berkeley 

Lighting by Jax Steager, Costumes by Miyuki Bierlein, Sound by Colin Trevor, Fight Director Dave Maier, Blood Technician Tunuviel Luv, Scenic Designer Anne Kendall, Graphics Designer Cheshire Isaacs, Films by Martin Estevez. 

WITH : Sarah Coykendall, Mike Delaney, Maro Guevara, Matt Gunnison, Anna Ishida, Joe Loper, Joseph Mason, Carlos Martinez, Mark McDonald, Michael McDonald, Jon Nagel, Vince Rodriguez, Cassie Rosenbrock, Stacz Sadowski, Caitlyn Tella, and Reggie White. 

John A. McMullen II is a member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. E J Dunne edits.