Theatre Review: Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Titus Andronicus

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Photo by Chris Garcia
From left: Kevin McGrath (Titus) and Sarah Hoeven (Queen Tamora) Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare’s earliest tragic play, was apparently very popular when first performed in the 1590s. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also his most gory, bloody and violent revenge story. After all, doesn’t everyone feel murderous sometimes?

As performed by the Long Beach Shakespeare Company (LBSC) through Sept. 14, such revenge is ultimately revealed as absurd and insane– and strangely entertaining.

While only some blood is actually spilled during the performance, dismembered hands, a cut-out tongue and bloody bandages abound. Red streamers issue from severed limbs to suggest even more blood. Some characters are dragged offstage to their demise and some stabbed onstage with swords. Severed heads are delivered in a bag.

This play is clearly not for the faint of heart, but LBSC artistic director Brando Cutts tempers the violence with over-the-top humor, which the actors seem to enjoy. Most prominently immersed in her role is LBSC veteran Sarah Hoeven as Tamora, queen of the Goths. Though brought to Rome as a prisoner by Titus (Kevin McGrath), a Roman general– who executes the queen’s eldest son to avenge the deaths of his own 21 sons during war with the Goths– Tamora soon weds the new Roman emperor, Saturninus (Eduardo Mora).

Tamora then unleashes her remaining sons, Demetrius (Ian Stewart Riley) and Chiron (Cole B. Norcio), on Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Rachel Speth), whom they ravage and mutilate, cutting her tongue and hands so she can’t implicate them. Meanwhile, Tamora is having an affair with Aaron (Corey Emanuel Wilson), a Moor who fathers a child by her and orchestrates vengeful plans of his own.

Amid all these vendettas, though, the actors play up the humor and absurdity latent in their words and actions. Hoeven is vampy with Aaron and hammy as the masked spirit of Revenge– with her sons equally corny as the spirits of Murder and Rape– when confronting Titus about his son Lucius (Maroon Stranger), whom Titus has sent to secure reinforcements and attack Rome to avenge Lavinia.

Riley and Norcio make an effective comedic duo as Tamora’s sons, as well as in their minor roles as Titus’ sons Quintus and Martius, who are thrown into a pit with the body of the emperor’s brother Bassianus (Jahnavi Aithal), Lavinia’s former betrothed. Aithal also ably juggles a handful of other roles, including a clown who delivers nearly every line with a winking schtick.

All of this humor contrasts with the gruesomeness of this episodic play, keeping the audience engaged while also exposing the irrationality of extreme vengeance. By the end, with Titus dressed in chef’s clothes, and the (remaining) characters convening for a macabre feast, the audience is both giggling and groaning for mercy.

At the heart of the play, however, is the suffering inflicted on Lavinia– which she can neither articulate nor avenge– played with depth of feeling by Speth. Similarly, Stranger plays her role of Lucius with utmost integrity, almost as if she were on a stage of her own. These weighty characters balance the farcical and circus-like cycles of revenge in the play, reminding us that tragedy is real and sometimes vengeance is justified.

Titus Andronicus continues at the Helen Borgers Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., through Sept. 14, with shows Fridays (except Sept. 6) and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Ticket prices are $12.50 and $22.50. For tickets and information, call (562) 997-1494 or visit LBShakespeare.org. LBSC advises parental discretion due to graphic content.