BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Shakespeare’s splatter epic of the early 1590s, “Titus Andronicus” rarely gets produced, so it’s a shame that the Public Theater has slated such a brief run for its effective revival, which opened on Tuesday and continues only through Sunday.
Performed by an 11-member company, director Michael Sexton’s production is a compact, economical rendering of this relentless melodrama regarding a Roman general of inflexible virtue who runs afoul of several scheming villains.
Most of Titus’ family is destroyed in one awful way or another but ultimately the mutilated protagonist reaps his revenge during a gory conclusion when more than half a dozen people perish. This is the play, incidentally, where two wicked brothers are baked into a pie and served to their unsuspecting mama.
These nasty doings often are so brutal that “Titus Andronicus” verges on becoming ridiculous, but the calculated modesty of Sexton’s stark staging in semi-modern dress mostly restrains it from absurdity. Buckets of stage blood – actual buckets -- are sloshed upon the characters during the final massacre but this stratagem is in keeping with Sexton’s stylized approach to the tragedy.
The director opens the play quietly as a young boy silently pages through Ovid while the story he reads comes to life. The boy is seated on a stack of raw wooden panels on an otherwise bare stage. As the play proceeds, these panels are deployed by the actors in different ways to suggest changing locations or are dealt out as crudely-drawn heraldic symbols meant to underscore the narrative – such as one that bears a crown for a scene when a new Roman emperor is chosen.
Dressed in combat fatigues, the bearded Jay O. Sanders makes an imposing mountain of a Titus brought low by his enemies only to rise again to murderous fury. Jennifer Ikeda becomes a mute picture of pathetic misery after her Lavinia is raped and maimed. Sherman Howard is a kindly figure as Titus’ more temperate brother. The eventual ferocity of Rob Campbell’s Lucius confirms his heritage as Titus’ son.
It’s debatable which among the drama’s villainous characters prove to be the worst, but certainly Ron Cephas Jones is coolly unrepentant as the fiendish Aaron. A cold-eyed, crafty Stephanie Roth Haberle is alternately seething or seductive as Tamora while Patrick Carroll is especially creepy as one of her sons. Both Jacob Fishel’s manner and peaked haircut as the treacherous emperor Saturninus suggest a shark.
Sexton paces the action steadily, making good use of Brandon Wolcott’s clamorous music and ominous sound design to foster mood. Designer Brett J. Banakis’ austere decor and Cait O’Connor’s clothes are appropriately understated. If this “Titus Andronicus” forsakes grandeur, it certainly does not lack for intensity.
“Titus Andronicus” continues through Dec. 18 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Call (212) 967-7555.