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Titus Andronicus/Titus Andronicus

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Titus Andronicus, Defiant Theatre, at the Viaduct Theater, and Titus Andronicus, Theatre o' th' Absurd, at the Performance Loft. Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedy is a catalog of cruelty: much-wronged Roman general Titus takes his revenge against the effete Emperor Saturnius and his vicious spouse, Tamora. The ensuing atrocities--amputations, decapitations, mutilation, rape, infanticide, cannibalism--recall a Hollywood pukefest. Watching Titus Andronicus is like swimming through a sewer. Nor does the poetry save the night.

Director Christopher Johnson and his Defiant terrorists actually draw inspiration from our addiction to violence in this unsubtle update: the Romans are arrogant Americans, the victorious Goths Arab guerrillas. A camera crew records every horror for home front entertainment. Guns blaze, knives flash, and your IQ sinks as one stupid sacrifice follows another, cluttering the stage with corpses. For almost three hours Larry Yando plays vengeful Titus with a sly suffering that verges on masochism, Matthew Carter is egregiously cowardly as the psychopathic emperor, Tere Parkes exudes opportunism as his wicked helpmate, and Christian Felix plays her lover, Aaron the Moor, as a killing machine.

The characters' inner lives are replaced by outer wounds, and there's nothing to cheer except the end. The gallows humor dries up by the plodding second act, and unlike King Lear, the misanthropy is unearned. Still, if you already hate humanity, this is the play for you.

Theatre o' th' Absurd mines Titus Andronicus for its crazy take on humanity, not its bloody excess. But unfortunately Jovan D. Mihailovic's strident three-hour staging makes the action seem more arbitrary than absurd: here the language takes its own beating. Speeches are pounced upon rather than delivered passionately, and the Performance Loft's poor acoustics don't help the ensemble's poor projection and mush-mouthed diction.

As Titus, a brooding Django R. Baker resembles Jesse Ventura in a bad mood; his monumental rage feels as authentic as the emotions in a wrestling smackdown. Faring better are Michelle Power, a genuinely creepy Tamora, and Dylan Ehrenburg as her arrogant spawn. As the indescribably vile Aaron--the Bard's most racist role--Arch Harmon seems to confuse mumbling with malice; by that standard his speeches fairly drip with vitriol.

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