Independent Shakespeare Co’s “Titus Andronicus”: or, Tragedy in the Park

The Independent Shakespeare Company‘s Titus Andronicus has got me thinking about why Shakespeare in the Park initiatives stage tragedies as part of their free seasons. What is the role of tragedy in such a context? You have a coupe options to choose from this summer in the LA area. While Indy Shakes is staging Titus in rep with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you can also see either The Merry Wives of Windsor or The Winter’s Tale being put up by Shakespeare by the Sea. There are in fact a huge range of free Shakespeare opportunities across southern California to compete with the more formal venues like The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ Romeo & Juliet and Henry IV (you know, the one with Tom Hanks) as well as The Old Globe—which looks to have no Shakespeare on its calendar until mid-August and then nothing through next June. All of those running more than one show has at least one of joy and one of discomfort. Indy Shakes even made a point of it in the program and swag, where you could get branding with the silhouette of a donkey’s head or a skull.

This is not unique to California. In the sampling of free Shakespeare I’ve had the opportunity to see, this seems to be an industry norm for the non-profits. I confess I am a bit of an addict, and have a habit of tracking down the local community Shakespeare when I’m in town for work, research, or a conference. I’m interested in what the public exposure is to Shakespeare, as most folks don’t want to pay the exorbitant ticket prices for the high-production stuff—if they even seek out theatre or Shakespeare at all. There were nearly two hundred folks at this opening, of all ages with the exception of kids under fifteen due to the content, kitted-out just at the Hollywood Bowl with picnics and wine bottles. But attention quickly waned, a huge number of cellphones appeared, and the young woman sitting next to me down-right curled up and fell asleep. So why tragedy in the park?

From left: Marcus (Richard Azurdia), Martius (Xavi Moreno), Lavinia (Katie Powers-Faulk), and Titus (David Melville).

There are lots of ways you could rationalize the choice. For the actors, balance in the repertoire, experience for the typically young actors, the chance for a veteran to get a spicy lead could motivate the decision. For playgoers, to be part of a scene (to say they are real theatre people), to perform a kind of class status, to become well-rounded and learned by the exposure, or the positive cognitive effects of processing pretend tragedy. (Scientists argue experiencing a range of emotions is cognitively productive, helping us build up coping mechanisms, among other benefits.) But what about when the production isn’t exactly achieving the ends it has set for itself?

I’v said here and in other contexts that you have to see a whole lot of theatre to know what you like, and to get a sense of what kind of powerful experiences thoughtful theatre can produce. In other words, you have to see a whole lot of “bad” theatre in order to see “good” theatre—or at least theatre that does something good for you. As a Shakespearean by profession, I’m a biased audience member with a unfair positionality to be seeing community theatre like this. There are trends, however, that suggest tragedy is more likely to go astray in these park productions. While Indy Shakes is not unique in this, I want to use last night’s production to discuss some of the habits I’ve been seeing.

The main one that confuses me more than anything else is open-air over-production. It’s the dead of LA summer: I struggle to see the need for a full complement of professional lights for an early evening performance when the sun doesn’t go down until after eight. The stage, nestled at the bottom of a raked lawn, was also positioned ideally for actors to develop projection. Yet everyone was fully mic’d, and still yelled their lines from first to last. The yelling worries me as I quickly start to envision damaged vocal chords developing over the course of a few weeks, when there are perfectly good chest resonators going unused. No vocal coach is a waste of resources in such a case.

From left: a priest (Joseph Culliton), Aaron (Evan Lewis Smith), Bassianus (Daniel Jimenez), Lavinia (Katie Powers-Faulk), Tamora (Sabra Williams), Saturninus (William Elsman), Chiron (Kevin Morales), Demetrius (Jack Lancaster), Titus (David Melville), and Marcus (Richard Azurdia).

I’m sensitive to stage spaces as a particular research area of mine is playhouse architecture. I couldn’t stop looking at the series of artfully designed caves sympathetically built into the hillside to the immediate right of the erected platform. Why weren’t they playing over there? Not only would it give the actors more opportunities to be creative with how they inhabit their space, but also would be cheaper than building from scratch. That, and it would have given the performers multiple options from which to enter and exit. Despite the generous built playing space, only one stage exit was provided, causing consistent traffic-jams. The Globe had/has two openings for just this reason, based off old-fashioned restaurant logic: one exclusively for exits and one for entrances.

My instinct would be to say that this was an LA performance, so the theatre-going culture likely expects big budget production. Yet, I’ve seen (and whinged) about this open-air over-production from Montreal to Illinois.  Perhaps big-budget practices pressurize community-centered theatre in ways we can’t see? Is this part of the early training of all actors, so it is normalized in these kinds of settings? Local-boy star billing is also part of these experiences, no doubt made popular by the Public in New York. For example, a Kansas City summer performance of Hamlet touted a local hero who had been in House of Cards, and here the Chairman from Iron Chef, Mark Dacascos, was on tap to play Aaron. Upon arrival, a slip in the program indicated Evan Lewis Smith to be playing the role, with no other explanation. As this was opening, and no announcement was made, I presume Dacascos pulled-out of the production. (While he’s been Tweeting regularly about the company, there is no indication here as to why he’s not with them.) So many allusive culinary opportunities lost, to say the least!

Part of the frustration around over-production for me is it actually just confuses me. And I’m someone who teaches these plays all the time. The hyper-literal, particuarlly in sound effects, can be especially difficult. As a play, I know as a playgoers I am being asked to do a lot f imaginative work, to fill in a lot of the blanks. The actors are on a metal platform overlooking Pasadena. I’ve got to turn that into Rome in my head. And that’s half the fun of theatre. So why pipe in bird-sounds when Tamora and Aaron are flirting in the woods? Griffith Park is already over four thousand acres, and the venue was difficult to find it was so secluded. Bird song was already happening, so why was it added? Likewise, when Titus chops his hand off at the top of the first act just before intermission, do we need extra spray and an added sound effect to his already loud chopping? I ask because sounds weren’t piped in for trumpets blaring, or the masses congregating for the triumphal procession, or any of the other ambient noises the dialogue goes out of its way to paint for us. As a playgoer, it feels like the rules keep changing under me; what exactly am I supposed to be responsible for imagining?

From left: Martius (Xavi Moreno), Lavinia (Katie Powers-Faulk), Titus (David Melville), and Marcus (Richard Azurdia). With heads of Quintus and Lucius.

A separate word must also be said for the fog machine. In that same Kansas City production, I could hardly control myself in the multiple times the ghost came on stage: he was always fogging from under the armpits. It was just silly, not scary, and the play lost all of its sense of what was at stake. Likewise here, when Lavinia enters for the first time after hav ing been raped and mutilated, she is ushered on with the help of a fog machine pumping behind her. I don’t think I need any extra mechanical help to convey the unholy violence that she has just suffered. The idea of rape, and he clear coverage in blood and her inability to speak for lack of a tongue conveys the horror quite completely. As a woman, the suggestion that I needed extra help to comprehend rape with a haunted house accoutrement was almost insulting.

I texted my partner in order to keep myself from yelling out: “Pay people! Resist buying toys!”

There are other kinds of confusions that get produced in these summer Shakespeare that seem more noticeable in the tragedies. One I mutter under the breath frequently is, “who are you talking to?” I get that it is common practice to give soliloquies to the audience. That isn’t how they work in the texts (they are moments when a character is trying to figure out something alone to themselves, without having to manage any other people in the room, so the closest we get to honesty), but it is a viable choice I understand. What I don’t understand is when a character who is having a conversation with another in the world of the fiction, is looking at me. This particularly confusing when “thou” is used in reference to the other character sharing the dialogue, but the speaker isn’t facing them. Are you talking to me, in that meta-break-the-fourth-wall-that-didn’t-exist-then way, or are you talking to them? I started keeping track of these in the first act, but had to give up. A short sample:

  • Tamora and her new husband, Saturninus, share and aside to plot a cruelty. The entire time they don’t look at each other, they look at and talk to us with their whole bodies.
  • Before Aaron makes his first entrance, before we even know who he is, there is a circle dance around him with an ethereal tune. Why? To emphasize his importance to the plot? Fine, but we haven’t even met him yet. Who is this movement for?
  • When Lavinia begs Tamora, Chiron, and Demetrius not to rape her, she is entirely unrestrained. For most of the scene she begs and pleads rather than racing off through the trees we are led to believe are there. (Remember those bid calls?) It is hard to connect the fear she conveys in her face and voice when the rest of her body doesn’t seem especially worried.
  • When Lavinia is brought to her family maimed, no one touches her to comfort or check the wounds. I get that the transfer of blood on costumes gets expensive quickly and this may be an expression of disgust, but the inconsistency makes that a difficult reading to apply. Titus has all these lines of embedded stage direction (always listen for the word “here” to suggest possible contact) he says but then doesn’t match with his body. For example, when Lavinia falls into his arms, he immediately gets up and ways away saying “How may I do thee ease?” Maybe he needed the help of the fog machine.
Aaron (Evan Lewis Smith) and Tamora (Sabra Williams).

While some of these choices I may be nit-picking at the level of directorial choice, the desire or habit to send-up Shakespeare is a widespread one. Since the 1990s, we’ve bene seeing that uptick at the reconstructed Globe regardless of the genre. I see it in OPS Fest, the company with which I am affiliated, all the time, but they are self-aware of the habit. It seems the more access actors have in performance to their audience, the more likely they will go for the funny. For example, just before the hunt in which Bassianus will be killed and Lavinia raped, a helicopter flies close over-head. Many of the actors broke frame looking upward and confused, and Saturninus quipped, “I didn’t know we had those for the hunt.” It got a loud chuckle for the audience, but the tone was completely lost. The confusion onstage suggests that despite fifteen years experience, the company doesn’t have a clear policy on what to do with interruptions. During the hunt, just before two more of Titus’ sons meet their death, they enter through the audience. They comment using the picnics, one saying “Oh, it’s a rabbit!” and the other replying, “That’s a Caesar salad!”

Don’t get me wrong: all of these got laughs. Just because you can get a laugh, do you want to? And certainly many of the tragedies have comic elements in them, but I don’t see anyone doing Othello with the clown scene included. Is this about being physically close to the audience? Is there something fundamentally ore difficult about maintaining tone in a tragedy versus a comedy? Is this a product of cultural difference and the post-modern default for satiric laughter in response to the terrible? If so, than (, in a conclusion I hadn’t anticipated when starting this post,) perhaps we need more community Shakespeare tragedies, not fewer.

The whole of the cast dance around Aaron (Evan Lewis Smith) before he makes his first speaking entrance: Bassianus (Daniel Jimenez), Lavinia (Katie Powers-Faulk), Martius (Xavi Moreno), Attendant (Corissa Pacillas), Quintus (Patrick Batiste), a nurse (Bukola Ogunmola), a priest (Joseph Culliton), Saturninus (William Elsman), Tamora (Sabra Williams), &c.

  • The Independent Shakespeare Company’s production of Titus Andronicus played at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, California, through September 2, 2018.
  • The production is free and open to the public. The venue is wheelchair accessible, with food and drink for purchase and easily-accessed public restrooms. More details here.

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