Sunday, January 31, 2016

Tackling Titus Andronicus

Seattle Shakespeare Company is presently performing its production of Titus Andronicus. For those unfamiliar with it, this is Shakespeare's first Roman play, exploring themes of indiscriminate, eye-for-an-eye violence made worse by the passion for chaos indulged by two of the play's central characters.

Seattle Shakespeare's program for the play says, regarding Shakespeare's less performed plays:

"...but the lesser known titles don't draw large audiences or...they are just plain difficult to stage for modern audiences. That's when a director's vision can make all the difference."

And then the company went on to prove it.

Maybe the infrequent performance of these plays is also an advantage for the performing companies. With the ultra-popular plays like Hamlet and Macbeth, there's an accretion of discoveries made in famous productions and well-known themes to be touched much work to do up front that when the time comes to find original points of their own, there's barely time to discover them. With the lesser known plays, maybe there's more room for sifting for new nuggets of gold, more fun to be had?

So how did Seattle Shakespeare handle this famously violent and brutal play? Here's one indication: the stage crew mopping up the floor during intermission...

When you walk into the theater before the start of this play, there is a satire of a Hollywood B movie playing in a continuous loop on a screen. It is a great combination of The Shining, imagined battle scenes from Troilus & Cressida with a warriors eating his dead foe's heart, witchcraft and violence. Think of the unholy love child of Steven King and Dario Argento and you'll get the idea.

The schlocky horror of that reel was a nice touch, setting the tone that remained constant throughout this production. I have to admit, I didn't expect to enjoy this production as much as I did but for the most part, strange as it may sound, this play was FUN. The violence, plotting and mayhem are just so over the top that they become cathartic. The only point in bleak contrast to that, horrible and painful, are the scenes where Lavinia has just been raped and mutilated.

On to the plot. The play opens with Titus Andronicus returned victorious from 10 years of war with the Goths, bringing the Goth queen Tamora and her three sons as captives: The war has been costly to the Andronici: 21 of Titus's 25 sons have died in it. So when one of the sons asks for permission to slay one of Tamora's sons, Titus casually allows this murder of a prisoner, despite Tamora's pleas for mercy. He then denies the offered position of Emperor and picks the wrong son of the previous Emperor to be ruler. This series of bad judgements, the casual slaughter and off-handed giving of power to an ill-fit man will result in the ruin of the Andronicus family and the death of many bystanders.

Aaron the Moor, lover of Tamora, also accompanies the Goths into captivity. He really is a fascinating character, sort of a playful Iago: you don't LIKE him per se but he is a fascinating character. While Tamora marries Emperor Saturninus, she and Aaron maintain their scorching relationship and ultimately have a child together. It's unfortunate that their lust was built on such a taste for mayhem and chaos but then this play is built on a variety of people making bad choices. Tamora herself was played as a fascinating and very sexy woman.

Tamora brings with her her two remaining sons, Demetrius and Chiron. Like their mother, these two are wild and passionate and have a taste for mayhem. They are played in this production like members of a 60s biker movie. But later, their violence reaches an awful extreme which ultimately makes you glad of their destruction.

These people in power set the stage for the Andronicus family's suffering. Powerless now and out of favor, they become subject to the machinations of Tamora's circle. The daughter of Titus, Lavinia, sees her husband (brother of Saturninus) brutally murdered by Demetrius and Chiron. Two of her remaining brothers are framed for the murder. While that crime is being discovered, Lavinia has been raped and horribly mutilated by Demetrius and Chiron. That scene was the one part of this horror-comedy that was entirely a horror. And yet, the actress playing the part of Lavinia managed to find a moment of wry humor later, expressing exasperation at her father's idiotic interpretation of signs she is trying to make.

Though thought unable to communicate the identity of her attackers, Lavinia does find a way to identify them. This leads up to a bloodletting unparalleled in Shakespeare's other plays. Hint: if you ever attend a production of Titus Andronicus where the refreshments served include pie, be VERY wary of eating it.

Again, I enjoyed this play MUCH more than I expected to. The dread of Lavinia's mistreatment was vastly offset by the very creative staging of the play's black comedy. And there is something satisfying about seeing the "other" Shakespeare plays and finding less known bits of gold therein.

Every single part was also cast brilliantly and all of the actors deserve unreserved praise. Well done, Seattle Shakespeare Company! And if you haven't seen this play yet, you still have a week to do so!

Production Team
David Quicksall (Director)
Carol Wolfe Clay (Set Designer)
Jocelyne Fowler (Costume Designer)
Andrew D. Smith (Lighting Designer)
Nathan Wade (Sound Designer)
Marleigh Driscoll (Props Designer)
Geoff Alm (Fight Choreographer)
Julia Griffin (Blood Consultant)(She was VERY busy)
Lenore Bensinger (Dramaturg)
Louise Butler (Stage Manager).

Taylor Winfield Babcock (Mutius/Guard/Goth/Servant)
Ian Bond (Demetrius)
Adam Canne (Quintus/Caius/Goth)
Angelica Duncan (Lavinia)
Karen Jo Fairbrook (Nurse/Tribune/Aemilius)
Huntington Filson (Alarbus/Servant/Guard/Messenger/Goth)
Jim Gall (Marcus Andronicus)
Matthew Gilbert (Martius/Publius/Goth)
Rachel Glass (Tamora)
Sylvester Foday Kamara (Aaron)
Jason Marr (Bassianus/Tribune/1st Goth)
Trevor Young Marston (Lucius)
Andrew McGinn (Titus Andronicus)
Christopher Morson (Chiron)
George Mount (Saturninus)
Alex Silva (Young Lucius)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Space Oddity

A Space Oddity

Millions of people listened to all the David Bowie songs they could today. And while there are quite a lot of them, my favorite has always been "Space Oddity", Bowie's song about an astronaut who suffers an accident and disappears into the void while up in space.

But there's a also great 1983 reprise of Space Oddity, "Major Tom" by Peter Schilling. This song adds  a neat twist to the story, changing it from the tale of an adventurer dying doing what he loves into something more. Schilling's song ends with that hint that Major Tom is still alive....the words "this is my home....I'm coming home".

In other words, he hasn't died, he has gone home. Whether that home is Heaven, Valhalla or something else, there's the sense that Major Tom's story hasn't ended. It's just entered a new phase. I think that's a belief that many of us would like to hold

Whatever the truth is about life after death, David Bowie is now a step ahead of us. He knows the reality behind the Undiscovered Country.

Free associating now

Driving home tonight, I ended up listening to a favorite audiobook by Spider Robinson. If you've never of Spider or read any of his books, do yourself a favor and check him out! My favorite collection of his work is "Callahan's Crosstime Saloon". In fact, it's one of my favorite books of all time.

While science fiction is sometimes dry or overly technical, Spider's stories are primarily about humanity. There are real extraterrestrials in his books, both good and bad. But there is also a minister who time travels by being imprisoned in a South American jail cell with his wife until she dies. And it is as sad and depressing as it sounds. But Spider also tells the story of the next day and the day after people take up the next day of their life after tragedy or hard times befall them.

(Unfortunately, Spider knows has known more than his share of hard times. His wife of 35 years and co-author Jeanne  Robinson died of cancer in 2010. And then his daughter died of metastatic breast cancer two years ago.)

The Spider Robinson book I was listening to tonight is a novel called "Stardance". In it, a bitter, cynical dancer becomes part of a mission sent to contact aliens who have entered the solar system. It is a story with loss but also with hope for humans finding the next step in our evolution by finding our destiny out among the stars.

Somehow, it just seemed appropriate now that David Bowie has left us.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Episode VII: More of the Same

The photo above could well be Harrison Ford rehearsing for the latest Star Wars movie.

I have to confess, when it comes to the question of "Star Wars" vs "Star Trek", I've always tended to fall on the "Star Trek" side. Maybe it's because the whole battle between the Jedi and the Sith reminds me dismally of American politics. It's like "Political informercials in space", whereas Star Trek is more like "Let's go out and find all the cool stuff we can find in space!!!"

A lot of people have said that the latest Star Wars is the best since "Return of the Jedi" and I had high hopes but to me, this one should have been titled "Episode VII: More of the Same". The characters Rey and Finn were pretty cool and a breath of fresh air, both badass in their own way. It was COOL that Finn couldn't bring himself to slaughter innocent civilians! Kylo Ren, on the other hand, reminded me of a badly acted high school production of Julius Caesar.

Leaving aside the new characters, a lot of this movie was spent trying to evoke nostalgia: the Millenium Falcon and its gaming board. Cute aliens with incomprehensible names. Cute robots not malfunctioning in a sandy environment. Leia and Han banter.

This was a good movie but I wouldn't give it more than 3 out of 5 stars.