The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey currently has two productions running. “The Servant of Two Masters,” the 18th century comedy by Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni, is at the outdoor stage at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown through July 29. And Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” is at the indoor stage at Drew University in Madison through Aug. 5.
As I wrote in my review, here, “The Servant of Two Masters” is a kind of pure comedy, strictly concerned with laughs, without much in the way of lofty themes. Another kind of purity is on display in “Titus Andronicus.” Uncharacteristically for Shakespeare, it’s an action-packed but not particularly profound tragedy — his take on the bloody revenge plays that were hugely popular during his time. (And it was, accordingly, a big hit for him, early in his career, though later generations have mostly been immune to it gory charms.)
“Titus Andronicus” does, on one level, portray a world gone mad, and so some may find its inclusion in the Shakespeare Theatre’s 2018 season (it’s the theater’s first production of it in more than 30 years) to be timely. Scenic designer Dick Block and costume designer Yao Chen also make it look quite elegant, with lots of gloomy grays and garish reds. Block places a huge helmet, lying on its side, at the back of the stage — you think of a fallen soldier — while huge swords loom over the stage, pointing at the characters. Danger literally hangs over these characters’ heads, all the time.
Director Brian B. Crowe comes up with some clever ideas as well, like using red confetti to simulate blood flowing from the many characters who are attacked. It’s an evocative touch, with a fluttering life force seeming to escape from the bodies with each maiming or murder.
And Crowe uses a lot of confetti: Few of the major characters make it to the end of the play in one piece. Titus Andronicus (played by Bruce Cromer) murders one of his sons by accident, and his daughter Lavinia (Fiona Robberson) is raped and mutilated by two brothers whom Titus subsequently murders. Titus then, in a scene that goes way over the top in its dark humor, serves their remains to their mother (and conspirator) Tamora (Vanessa Morosco), baked in a pie. Tamora is not told what’s in the pie until after she has eaten heartily.
There isn’t a lot of psychological depth to these characters. Titus is the heroic warrior who turns insanely vengeful after he becomes a victim of the violence he so easily inflicts on other (the play begins with him casually ordering the death of another son of Tamora’s). Tamora is a charismatic queen who plots unspeakable acts with an innocent smile, to avenge the death of her son.
Tamora’s two sons and accomplices, Demetrius (Tosten Johnson) and Chiron (Quentin McCuiston), seem like dense, slightly goofy frat brothers who also happen to be murderous marauders.
Aaron (Chris White), Tamora’s lover and an even more hiss-worthy villain (though tender with his own son), is almost cartoonishly fixated on evil and destruction. When asked if he is sorry for the dastardly deeds he has done, he replies, “Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.”
Titus’ brother Marcus (Robert Cuccioli) and eldest son Lucius (Clark Scott Carmichael) are wise and good in ways the other characters are not, and emerge as the last men standing after all the mayhem.
Adding to the play’s sense of dark, almost dystopian atmosphere, Crowe has a handful of cloaked cast members mill around the stage, sweeping up. They’re anonymous, and move in slow motion, as if numbed and beaten down by the violence-filled world they live in.
As in all of Shakespeare’s plays, the poetry can be hypnotic at times, and this is a classy, handsome, thoughtfully staged production. Maybe, in fact, more classy, handsome and thoughtfully staged than a formula exercise like “Titus Andronicus” deserves.
“Titus Andronicus” will be at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through Aug. 5; visit shakespearenj.org.