Cal Shakes’ “Titus Andronicus” is a bloody good show

California Shakespeare Theater/Courtesy
For the first time in California Shakespeare Theater’s 38-years of outdoor culture-ification, the company that cool kids call “Cal Shakes” presents us with a production of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”, directed by Joel Sass. It’s a bloody and vengeful affair, entertaining although perhaps not appropriate for children or those adverse to projectile bleeding. “Titus” is like an on-stage over-eloquent horror film, and an introduction to the darker realms of Shakespeare’s imagination — you may never look at your little book of Shakespearean love sonnets quite the same way again. 

It’s hard to give a plot summary without ruining the punch of who-died-how, and how-much-do-they-bleed-and-from-where — that would be to give away the meat of the play, so to speak. But I can at least provide a starting point: The Roman Emperor has died, and his two suns, Saturninus (Rob Campbell) and Bassianus (Liam Vincent), are vying for the throne. Titus Andronicus (James Carpenter) has returned victorious from war with the Goths, and has brought back their Queen Tamora (Stacy Ross) and her sons as prisoners.

Cue a flurry of drums and cellos, a masked, creepy ensemble and let the bloodbath begin.

The audience is welcomed into the action early on — we, clearly, are Romans, addressed directly by the actors. We’re probably supposed to feel a bit guilty about these tragic happenings, even as we sit and sip hot chocolate wrapped in one of Cal Shakes’ almost-warm blankets. Despite the chill of late-spring evenings, it’s probably for the best that the whole ordeal of “Titus” takes place outdoors in the Bruns amphitheater. The smell of stage blood would surely overwhelm an enclosed space.

Imagine, for a moment, the birds-and-bees talk that child actor Caleb Alexander must have endured prior to his role of Young Lucius. “Now Caleb,” some unfortunate parent or guardian must have begun, “When a man and a woman hate each other very much, something happens. They rape and kill and maim each other.” Luckily, his performance displays the maturity needed for such a work.

Speaking of mothers, Stacy Ross is pure evil as Tamora. While nearly everyone in this play is technically evil, something about the way Ross floats across the stage with her bored grin and svelte figure makes her perfectly detestable. Her cool, calm bitchery lingers in the mind’s eye. She’s fun to hate. (Not to worry — like every one else in “Titus,” she gets her come-uppance soon enough.)

Meanwhile James Carpenter’s Titus is heartbreaking to watch. From a proud general to a withered lunatic driven mad by grief, this old man just can’t catch a break. Carpenter maintains an impressive poise even in Titus’s most pitiable moments. He even draws a number of laughs in the play’s many instances of dark humor.

In part because of this humor, “Titus Andronicus” was very popular at its debut at the end of the 16th century. Picture a theater packed with drunken scoundrels in various shades of brown attire, shouting toothlessly and clutching at overflowing glasses of mead, or whatever it is they drink in the old-timey, historically inaccurate England of my imaginary. Then, apparently, theater-goers grew a little classier and “Titus” fell out of favor in light of Shakespeare’s later works — you know, the ones that were more talky and less stabby.

Is there a lesson in this play, or is it a gratuitous joyride of gore? How about: “Crime does pay, at least until you get your throat slit.” Or maybe, “English people were ridiculously racist in the 16th century,” as you watch Shawn Hamilton as Aaron the Moor reveal that, surprise, it was the black guy’s fault all along.

Perhaps it’s best to eschew the attempt to learn Deep Important Things from Shakespeare this time around, and just sit back, sip your hot chocolate, and feel grateful that you haven’t had your hands and tongue cut off, or been killed and baked into a pie and eaten by your mother.