Thursday, September 1, 2022

Artwork “Stewardess Fight” by Kirsten Johnson 

O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen leaves upon a lute 
And make the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not then have touched them for his life.
Or had he heard the heavenly harmony
Which that sweet tongue hath made,
He would have dropped his knife and fell asleep...

Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare, Act 2,Scene 4


Alongside the intense violence that marks Shakespeare's critically acclaimed, frequently maligned play, there is the trademark beautiful and startling poetry that has become his signature trait as a playwright of extreme poetic capabilities coupled with intense and violent murder enactments. The many graphic killings in the play reaches a peak in the character of Lavinia. An especially brutal incident is replayed as the ravaged body is viewed and pontificated upon with exquisitely arranged words and images form nature. In the hands of Sky Gilbert, the body being poeticized and grieved upon is a complex and re-arranged portion of the text, given to a character who does not speak the words in the original, thus becoming an overtly and extremely successful example of post-modern adaptation that adds new life to a very complicated text. The "lily aspen leaves" refer to severed fingers, revealing the bard's ability to take even the most gruesome of acts and make them somewhat palatable through a kind of brutalizing beauty - like nature. Making the gruesome palatable comes across in Gilbert's adaptation through simple stylized props representing gore, and skilful performances that begin with a high camp entrance and gradually move into the spoken, conversational tones that serve Shakespeare's contemporary audiences so well.

Elley-Ray Hennessy enters in the first scene in a kind of Rocky Horror, Sally Bowles, Cruella DeVille costume persona and manically measured physical poise, speaking lines with an animated camp intensity that draws you immediately into the character's enraged state. Gradually she joins the other cast members in a heightened yet metered conversational tone that allows the poetry to find a rhythm that will take us through the many scenes of violence, lament, and revenge.

Some have insisted that the original was a parody - Shakespeare's attempt to match-cum-mimic the very popular and bloody revenge plays of his contemporaries. He has been accused of "mocking and exploiting Marlowe", and it has been suggested that the best director for Titus Andronicus might be Mel Brooks. Sky Gilbert rises to the occasion and becomes a skilful and clever director for this bloody tragedy, bringing out the comedy, the horror, and the supposed parody in an engaging blend of stylized forms. 

The final scene gives pink balloons a poignant and comic presence as spectators are asked to join the cast in the outdoor space, alongside a parking lot, to watch the final moments take a signifying plunge into the hideous beauty of the central plot. The blue of the mid evening sky and the solemn playfulness of ascending air-filled hearts punctuate the closing moments as the audience descends back into the black box playing space.

                   Elley-Ray Hennessy as Tamora (Queen of the Goths and later Empress)

Standout performances by Veronica Hurnik (Narrator/Saturninus/Young Lucius/Nurse) and Augusta Monet (Lavinia 1) reveal the necessary additions and alterations to the original script that Gilbert has expertly inserted, bringing the audience into a world of observation and delineation as the director/playwright creates a mesmerizing take on the ways which violence can become an aspect of unmanaged fear and unbridled lust. 

                                       Elley-Ray Hennessy, Augusta Monet, Max Ackerman

                                                                  Veronica Hurnik 

George Alevizos' as Lavinia 2

Elley-Ray Hennessy's Queen of the Goths and George Alevizos' Lavinia 2 create intense moments of great expression and presence that consistently demands engagement, and instills great pathos and rage. Max Ackerman and John Humeniuk as the sons add varied masculine prowess as they skilfully insert bumbling, hapless personalities into the action.

                                     l-r - Joe Humeniuk,  Veronica Hurnik, Max Ackerman

Ray Jacildo as Aaron the Moor (Tamora's lover)  creates powerful land poetically charged presence with his eloquently delivered lines and his agile physical presence. More physical entanglement might have been made of the connection between him and Tamora, adding what appears to be a slightly absent sexuality in a play all about lust, blood, power, and revenge. And yet, there are some titillating homoerotic moments that come to a gruesome end.


                                             Ray Jacildo as Aaron the Moor, (Tamora's lover)

 (rear) Ray Jacildo as Aaron the Moor, (Tamora's lover) (front) Elley-Ray-Ray Hennessy (Tamora)

Brian Smegal's Titus is an understated, emotionally complex performance that gives the title character a kind of complicated and engaging shallow-depth, which serves perfectly Gilbert's notion that Shakespeare was trying to tell his audience that plays do not need a message, or 'depth', or justification. They simply need to instil something, be it fear and loathing or delight in parodic gore - satiric bloodthirstiness in the hands of a gruesome cast of characters hell bent on causing as much mayhem as humanly possible. Which is precisely what happens in this production, with the aid of Glibert's original narration that, in the hands of a skilful and sympathetic narrator (Hurnik) makes for a diverse and frequently environmental evening of theatre. 

At one point the narrator guides the audience into a basement area for a brief scene where Titus contemplates and endures the infamous fly killing scene with manic grace and a violent exit back to the main playing space. Youtube links accessible through cell phones are provided for any spectators who cannot go into the basement area, providing yet another intriguing element to the drama.

                                Brian Smegal as Titus Andronicus (a noble roman general)


And set them upright at their dear friends' door
Even when their sorrows almost was forgot,
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters
'Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.'
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly;
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.” 

                                                                                    ― William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

And thus ends/begins the old and the new - Shakespeare's penchant for the blood and guts of beautiful and unsettling drama. Mixing comedy, tragedy, violence, and tender poetic rants-cum-meditations on the beauty and the terror of human nature. And the new - Sky Gilbert's innovative preoccupation with the study of the iconic bard in a rigorous and enlightening attempt to instil new life and energy into the work of one of the most produced playwrights in the history of theatre.

Max Ackerman, Ray Jacildo, Elley-Ray Hennessy, John Humeniuk and George Alevizos in ‘Who’s Afraid of Titus?’

                WHO'S AFRAID OF TITUS



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