Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is not often performed, which explains why I had never experienced the play until I went to the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse last night to see the third entry in the company's Summer 2009 rotating repertoire. I suspect that one reason the play isn't often performed (apart from all the blood and gore, which can be a problem) is that the character Aaron, the lover of the Goth Queen, is evil. Really bad. Nasty. Incorrigible. And it hardly matters that he gets caught and is set to be tortured to death in the end. It doesn't seem enough.
The play is a revenge tragedy set in Rome. Titus Andronicus has returned victorious from the Goth wars and the people want to proclaim him emperor, which, in hindsight, he should have gone along with. Instead, though, he throws his support behind Saturninus and also agrees to let him marry his daughter Lavinia. But when the new emperor sees the Goth Queen, he forgets about Lavinia, who anyway is betrothed to Bassianus, the emperor's brother and rival. The Goths bring nothing but trouble to the court and set the wheels of death in motion.
It's bloody, but hypnotic. James Keegan as Titus is wonderfully intense. He is a loving father, filled with grief at what has befallen his family, but is also a convincing plotter of revenge. As the evil Aaron, Rene Thornton Jr. is impressive, especially when he begins to recount his evil deeds and notes that if he did one good thing in his life, that would be his sole regret. John Harrell is Saturninus, and as always he is terrific. As emperor, he is enthralled by the Goth Queen, but his own imperial ego shines through as well. Sarah Fallon, Queen of the Goths, projects evil pretty effectively, too. Fallon has a commanding presence on stage and the audience will feel it here. One moment she is lying to her husband the emperor, and the next we are privy to her inner, evil thoughts. Another excellent performance. As Lucius, eldest son of Titus, Luke Eddy is perfect. He's heroic, but not without emotion. I was especially moved by Victoria Reinsel as Lavinia, particularly after she has been abused by the sons of the Goth Queen (devilishly played by Chris Johnston and Daniel Rigney). Her wordless performance is stunning.
The play is probably not a good choice for the squeamish, especially because of the decision to use fake blood. But for everyone else, I recommend this powerful production.