The theater presenting "Titus Andronicus" was misidentified in one reference in a Nov. 20 Style review. As stated earlier in the article, it is Washington Shakespeare Company, not Washington Stage Guild. (Published 11/23/04)
Certain of Shakespeare's works are famous for their body counts, but in "Titus Andronicus," it's all about the horror. The Bard's second play is one of his bloodiest, containing not only more than a dozen murders but also rape, dismemberment and cannibalism, for a slasher-worthy average of 5.2 atrocities per act.
And in Washington Shakespeare Company's staging, "Titus's" violence is sufficiently brutal -- but its last-act revenge is shamelessly sweet. While director Joe Banno doesn't trivialize -- or sugarcoat -- hard-to-watch scenes such as the torture of Lavinia, Titus's daughter, he orchestrates the tragedy's over-the-top finale with the ghoulish glee of a Wes Craven. A scary-movie feel is easily conjured with a disturbing string score reminiscent of "Psycho" and actors whose eyes glaze over like zombies, but the production's modern setting also helps: When knives will no longer do, Banno has our hero trot out a chain saw.
The bloodletting is not the only aspect of "Titus" that Banno finds nightmarish. In his program notes, the director suggests that the play's story of a government whose actions are informed by vengeance is disturbingly familiar. He sets the play in a highly charged election year in near-future America, opening with Saturninus (Alexander Strain) and his brother, Bassianus (Arthur Rowan), stumping for power with CNN-slick inflections that make Shakespeare's words sound surprisingly current ("Fight for freedom in your choice!").
When the people vote instead for the celebrated general Titus (Ian Armstrong) to be their leader, Titus politely declines and names Saturninus a worthy substitute. To express his gratitude, Saturninus offers to marry Lavinia (Kate Siegelbaum), but when Lavinia announces that she's betrothed to Bassianus, Saturninus takes revenge by freeing and marrying Tamora (Rahaleh Nassri), the evil and recently imprisoned queen of the Goth empire that fell to Titus.
While most of "Titus's" 19 cast members cut vivid characters, the women steal the show. Nassri, outfitted in vixenish, butt-kicking boots even when a prisoner, is deliciously hateful as the seriously ticked-off Tamora. The actress makes Tamora's seductive powers as prominent as her thirst for blood, translating to the character's easy control over her new husband, her lover (a sharp, gangsterish David Lamont Wilson) and even her sons (Cesar A. Guadamuz and Chris Galindo), whom she directs to torture Lavinia with a typically manipulative sentiment: "The worse to her, the better loved of me."
Siegelbaum, in contrast, is heartbreaking as Lavinia, whose hands and tongue are cut off by Tamora's sons so she can't communicate who raped and brutalized her. The actress, naturally, is wordless for the remainder of the show, but her performance packs the biggest emotional wallop: An extended and barely lit scene shows her stumbling naked, bloodied and tied in rags, and after Lavinia's family rescues her, Siegelbaum's constant sobs and quaking are devastating. Even when Lavinia is finally quieted, Siegelbaum's blank stares are as powerful as any histrionics.
"Titus" proceeds less as a story than as a series of one-upmanships, culminating in the terrifically malevolent dinner where the general's idea of justice is literally served. Be forewarned, the imaginatively parceled space at the Clark Street Playhouse spares no one from the play's barbarity: With a low walk cutting diagonally across the room and five mini-sets scattered around the house's perimeter, it's assured that no matter where you're sitting, you'll eventually be a treated to a front-row squirm. Marianne Meadows's discreet lighting, however, keeps the queasiness factor down, so even the delicate of stomach can enjoy Washington Stage Guild's wild ride.
Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Joe Banno. Set, Matt Soule; costumes, Melanie Clark; sound, David Lamont Wilson; fight choreography, Arthur Rowan. Approximately 21/2 hours. Through Dec. 31 at Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.washingtonshakespeare.org.