Daring the Bloody Sea: Coeurage’s “Andronicus”

Titus Andronicus is the hardest of all Shakespeare’s plays to stage.
It went unperformed for 300 years, because its extreme bloodiness and cruelty baffled theatre makers — they couldn’t see a way to do it without completely alienating their audiences.

In the 20th century, led by Peter Brook’s 1955 breakthrough at the Royal Shakespeare (starring Laurence Olivier), artists began to tackle Titus again.  Everyone has had to start with a crucial choice — realistic or symbolic?  Both have worked, and both have failed.

The Coeurage Company, fresh off their triumph at floating The Yellow Boat without sinking in sentimentality, has launched Andronicus at their new home, the Lyric/Hyperion in Silver Lake.   Alas, it doesn’t quite sail the seas of blood successfully.

Brian Abraham, Ted Barton, and Katie Pelensky.

Brian Abraham, Ted Barton, and Katie Pelensky.

Not for lack of making choices.  Director Jeremy Lelliott opts firmly for realism.  We watch stabbings and sexual couplings, and Lavinia, after being raped and mutilated, returns to the stage oozing and drooling blood.  (These are all simulated, of course.)

The problem is that the choice doesn’t fit the theatre.  With only 35 seats, the Lyric/Hyperion is one of LA’s smallest houses — it’s also probably the shallowest, from back row center to the back of the stage.  This makes a wonderfully intimate space, greatly enhancing the emotional and bodily connection between actors and audience.

But there’s a tradeoff.   In this house theatrical illusions, however well made, may not convince.  From 10 feet away or less, you can’t make us believe an actor’s hands have been sawed off.  Lelliott (probably wisely) avoids plastic or latex stumps; but wrapping the actor’s hands in bloody gauze doesn’t work either.  We’re so close we can see how it’s done.  (And are we supposed to think her brutal assailants paused to gently bandage her?)

The Lyric/Hyperion is not the place for a realistic Andronicus.  But theatre magic can work here — when it’s symbolic.

For example, Lelliott has added a silent dance/mime in which the  Emperor and Tamora have missionary sex and then, when he falls asleep, she couples passionately with her aide Aaron.  This works excellently — no need for anyone to strip and try to persuade us actual intercourse is going on.

In fact, by not distracting us with skin, the dance (choreographed by Tifany Cole) focuses our feelings sharply on the queen’s cynicism.
I suspect streaming red ribbons — following the dance’s symbolic lead — would have worked similarly to keep us connected with Lavinia’s mute agony.

Like the director, most of the actors make clear choices.  Ted Barton uses his powerful voice and presence to create a Titus whose obsession with honor is really overblown pride, humbled briefly by grief, but reviving cruelly in the quest for revenge.  It’s a bold choice: a protagonist whom we see and understand, but do not get to like.   Rebekah Tripp’s Tamora exudes a similar boundless self-confidence — as military leader, seductress, conniving politician — and also bars us from feeling any empathy.

As Aaron, Anthony Mark Barrow uses terrific physical energy to make his Iago-like plotter into a vicious Puck, flying hungrily twixt rape and murder.  Mark Jacobson aims at — and hits — a mewling, self-centered Saturninus no more fit than Caligula’s horse to rule an empire.

All these major characters, but not one we can like or even pity!
This is the second major problem Titus Andronicus poses.  Blood and cruelty abound, but for human sympathy we must turn to the minor characters.  Who get fewer lines and less stage time to do the job.

Lavinia’s sufferings win our sympathy automatically; but it takes acting to make a mute, handless character real.  Katie Pelensky, in a quiet virtuoso turn, uses her face and body to move from a rigid, traumatized ghost to an eager conspirator in the revenge plot, creating emotions from grief to rage, from  hesitation to glee.

Marcus, Titus’ saner brother, offers our main chance for human connection.  He’s a man of feeling, responding to events with open (and appropriate) emotions, and an homme raisonable, able to make sense of what’s happening, what’s next to do.  Brian Abraham can take space and speak forcefully, but cuts Marcus’ whiskey with the water of hesitation.  To be fair, his main speech (on finding Lavinia) is the play’s longest and most problematic — the Bard has written an ambivalence into it that few artists have been able to handle.

Titus’ son Lucius alone knows what real honor is, and has the clarity and courage to oppose him.  Almost the only son (out of two dozen!) to survive, he’s named emperor at the end.  TJ Marchbank delivers his lines intelligently and clearly, but does not exert enough  vocal and physical authority to balance his unbalanced father, or let us hope the empire’s in strong hands.

The tech team performs admirably.  A few benches are carried on and off Dean Cameron’s simply draped stage, to keep it open; the lighting (Tito Fleetwood Ladd) and sound (Joseph V. Calarco) are unobtrusive, emotionally effective and timely.  And the costumes (Kara Mcleod) use a wise restraint — simple, muted modern clothes with classical signifiers (capes, a dress, a helmet).

A note about language:  Even in Shakespeare’s most accessible plays, it’s a challenge.  Given 400-year old poetry, it’s not easy to know what you’re saying and why, and to make it distinctly clear to the audience.  But it’s essential.

Barton’s Titus is a clarion trumpet.  Jacobson, as Saturninus, may grate with his whining but he’s always understood.  Pelensky’s few words before Lavinia is silenced, and Katelyn Gault’s brief scene as the royal nurse, are limpid.

Most of the rest have work to do.  As Aaron, Barrow knows his text and has a fine instrument, but he rushes far too often into muddled noise.  Tripp always knows what Tamora’s saying and why, but she drops into inaudibility at times.  And Abraham, as Marcus, and Marchbank, as Lucius, are almost always clear — but not always.

Director Lelliott played a hunch that didn’t pay off — going realistic with Titus Andronicus in a tiny theatre.  He hasn’t yet harmonized his cast into an ensemble telling a single story (Barrow’s Aaron and Jacobson’s emperor, in particular, seem stylistically out of register).  And there’s still more work for text coach Sammi Smith.

But these folks don’t call themselves the Coeurage Company for nothing.  They’ve tackled  two immense theatrical challenges in a row.  And they choose to live with the constant uncertainty of being “LA’s pay-what-you-want theatre”.  We need them to keep making their bold choices, and playing in our town.

Note: We also need the Lyric/Hyperion to stay in business.  The tiny house is well-appointed, and the sandwich/deli restaurant serves personal charm and smashing food.  Every theatre should have such an amenity.

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Shakespeare’s Andronicus, adapted and directed by Jeremy Lelliott.
Presented by Coeurage Theatre Company at the Lyric/Hyperion Theatre, 2106 Hyperion Avenue, LA 90027.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays (except July 27 and Aug. 10) at 7:00, through August 17.

Tickets: <www.couerage.org>